The reality that Jason Lytle was the creative mind keeping Grandaddy alive became apparent around the time of the release of 2006’s Just Like the Fambly Cat. Others in the band reportedly had little, if anything, to do with the making of that album. But it introduced a Grandaddy that was attempting to redefine itself by recycling old sounds. Unfortunately, the result was a mess of trite lyrics and, well, songs that sounded recycled. Lytle may have needed the help he had foregone.
The demise of the band that was at one time compared to Radiohead has been attributed to various things: a lack of success, too many drugs, overall exhaustion. While Grandaddy rose to popularity when alternative was still actually indie, their management struggled to find a niche for them. Once bearded and plaid-clad, Lytle and the others can be named as innovators of a western lo-fi preoccupied by nature and its harmonious clash with technology, of which the likes of MGMT are descendants. Grandaddy blurred simple acoustics with spacey machine-made sounds. However, because of their lack of place, Grandaddy lost direction.
Lytle has always been wise to the context of his albums. 2000’s classic Sophtware Slump was anything but, and follow-up Sumday was perhaps, looking back, indeed their “Final Push to the Sum.” Their swan song, Just Like the Fambly Cat, admitted with no qualms that they had indeed gone off and disappeared to die. On that album, the idea of Lytle’s new direction is first proposed on the single “Elevate Myself.” He sings, “I don’t wanna work all night and day on writing songs that make the young girls cry.”
Yours Truly, the Commuter, then, is a resurrection of sorts for Lytle. I get the sense that he has re-collected himself after moving to Montana. The album opener and title track begins, “Last thing I heard I was left for dead/ Well, I could give two shits about what they said.”
Having chosen a new path, Lytle has placed himself in a difficult position. The muse was gone with the other members under the Grandaddy name, but just as old expectations disappear, new ones arise. The successful debut solo album, one may expect, should strike a balance between new ideas and at least an acknowledged attachment to the past. There should be a fresh beginning without disenchanting any old fans. That said, Yours Truly is an extension of Lytle’s Grandaddy work. This is, perhaps, its greatest asset, and the reason for its flaws.
Always talented with songs that build upon themselves, Lytle creates at times pastoral soundscapes full of sweeping melodies and technological blips. Simple electronic tones are joined by acoustic guitar and basic drumbeats are layered atop before more oscillating tones round out “You’re Too Gone.”
Another hallmark of Grandaddy was their aptitude for catchy hooks. Although none of the songs match catchy and clever “A.M. 180,” Yours Truly contains Lytle’s best work since Sumday. His lyrics are at times still slightly goofy with a liking for puns (Furget It), and at other times centered around desolation, a connection to the natural world, and of course, skateboarding (“Rollin’ Home Alone” refers to skateboard wheels, not tires). His lyrics have not so much as matured as they show a new restraint. Rather than meowing and singing a song titled “Jeez Louise,” (from Fambly Cat) the closest Lytle gets to corny is singing about hanging out with the ghost of his old dog. While Fambly Cat retreads old material in an effort to make it sound new, Lytle now is able to use his old abilities to make fresh music. One can picture Mr. Lytle shacked up in the cold Montana winter fidgeting away on these songs. They are well-crafted moments in the wilderness just past civilization. They are finely structured and precise — perhaps to a fault.
If the void created by the lack of the other Grandaddies is apparent anywhere, it is so in the album’s deficient energy. The album’s drum machine sounds and clean guitars detract rather than compliment the album’s reserved mood. Tracks evoke digital wavelengths rather than actual people playing instruments. The once experimental Lytle shows signs of settling. There are noisy outros and intros, but the distant vocals and crude otherworldly sounds of Grandaddy’s debut, Under the Western Freeway, may have gone the way of the fambly cat. Their replacement is Lytle’s piano, which he utilizes a great deal on I Am Lost (And the Moment Cannot Last) and Furget It.
However, Lytle has already explored such terrain, and his new album reflects his new label, Anti-, home to such singular acts as Neko Case and Nick Cave. His work is strange enough to stay out of the mainstream, but it’s also strange, original and sincere enough to attract a wide audience, especially those maturing fans of Grandaddy. With this album, Lytle has established himself as a solo artist who does not so much distance himself from his previous band as successfully scratch an itch for sounds that have been missing from the music landscape for quite some time. Yours Truly is less of a debut solo album and more of an album Lytle made under his own name.