Like a child lining up his green plastic toys for war, Jason Lytle crafts the most innocent tragedies you'll ever hear between a record's two sides. Mournful, shivery and almost imperceptibly self-amused, the newest output from the California songwriter sends him soaring along the trajectory he first launched with Grandaddy, propelled by the knack for rendering big sadness in miniature.
Although Dept. of Disappearance is sonically close kin to Grandaddy albums that have now aged for longer than a decade, Lytle has hollowed out a very particular pocket in music history that's sheltered him from ever sounding dated or stale. Even though many of his turn of the millennium indie pop peers have stomped on to stranger pastures, Lytle retains that rare gift of sounding fresh inside the same creative modes year after year. While Disappearance might technically be his sophomore solo album--the follow-up to 2009's Yours Truly, the Commuter--it's hard not to think of it as yet another entry in a dud-free Grandaddy catalog.
Like the best of Lytle's work before it, Disappearance serves as an anthology of sad, lonely fables all wrapped up in pitch-perfect pop. From the triumphant crescendos of "Matterhorn" to the alliterative singalong of "Willow Wand Willow Wand," the record handles both its big and small moments with equal passion and care. Yawning ballads like "Last Problem of the Alps" and "Somewhere There's a Someone" drive the drama home hard, while the opener and title track tackle the record's core sense of loss with a humorous spin: "you'll never get away from me/you'll never get the clearance/I work for the department/the department of disappearance." All over the record, Lytle's ageless voice drips with mounting saudade. On "Young Saints," karate-chopped syllables spell out the irreversible separation from someone loved: you are gone. On "Your Final Setting Sun," the melancholy clouds around the simple, enormous gift of helping a stranger die.
Lytle anchors each parable on death and other loss with his trademark marriage of analog synths and gently fuzzed guitars. Occasionally, an orchestral flourish will swoop in to bolster the drama, elevating Lytle's songwriting to a previously untouched level of richness and warmth. Not only does Disappearance feel bigger than Commuter, but its track list feels bolder, honed in, not so distracted by instrumental oddities and one-off joke songs. While nothing quite tops Commuter's high point (the achingly lovely suicide lullaby "Birds Encouraged Him"), Disappearance contains more rock solid and heartily addictive songs than anything Lytle's put together since the Sophtware Slump.
It even finishes with what could easily be considered the thesis to Lytle's easy rhymes, his softly curling melodies. "It's all about the small simplicities," he sings from the perspective of a child trying to reconcile the world's chaos with his own expectations of a simple, orderly reality in the eight-minute sprawler "Gimme Click Gimme Grid." After all, where else are we going to put all that sadness if not inside the dollhouses of our own memory? By scaling the hard parts so they're smaller than us, we may yet have a chance at this life--as suggested by the brief mid-record encouragement of "Get Up and Go," where we're able to believe, for a moment, that "everything's going to be all right."
Lytle has always eschewed somber grandiosity in his music, but the melancholy weighs no less than if he told it straight. If anything, the coupling of sweetness and sorrow makes the sad stuff all the more real. On Disappearance, Lytle yet again hits that perfect balance of gentle storytelling and hard, dark emotion--like a parent preparing a child for the harshness of the world by diving into a favorite tragic tale night by night, again and again.