Indie Rock Music

Grandaddy – The Sophtware Slump Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of a modern classic

I tend to get overexcited & hyperbolic when I’m writing about bands & albums that I love. I expect my readers to cotton on to this & adjust the way they think about my reviews accordingly. There are a few albums though, which I don’t think I could get hyperbolic enough about. Albums which are so important to me, my taste in music & my outlook on life, that I can barely even conjure the words I want to sya about them. The Sophtware Slump by Grandaddy, to me, is one such album. It’s definitely a top 5 album for me & maybe even a top 3.

It’s hard to believe that for 20 years now, that humanoid robot, Jed, has been a part of my life. The heartbreaking story of his alienation, depression, alcoholism & death, a mere subplot on the massively ambitious concept album The Sophtware Slump, has haunted my own creative output since then. Interestingly, Futurama’s alcoholic robot, Bender, debuted on our screens the same year that Grandaddy were locked in the studio, working away at their magnum opus. It’s impossible to not wonder if the early Fururama episodes were an influence on Jed. Obviously Bender & Jed are not, aside from the alcoholism, similar. Bender is brash & arrogant. He drinks because he has to to survive. In the canon of Fururama, robots must maintain a certain level of alcohol. When Bender is deprived of alcohol, he starts to act like a drunk human & grows a five-o-clock shadow made from rust. This is a stark contrast to the tragic tale of Jed. Jed was created by a loving group of scientists. His tale is told, in the mournful Jed The Humanoid, posthumously. The scientists tell us how proud they were of Jed. They looked on him like a child. Over the years though, they had begun to pay less attention to him & neglected him. They had new inventions. He turns to drink & the drink kills him. “Shocked & broken, shut down exploding”. I picture his electronic components fizzing & melting as the alcohol corrodes them. There is a strong sense of guilt that Jed “found our booze”.

Jed resurfaces on the wonderful Jed’s Other Poem (Beautiful Ground). The introduction explains how after his death, the scientists found some poems, written by Jed. “Perhaps I’ll show them, here’s one of Jed’s poems”, singer Jason Lytle sings before launching into the song proper. The song, in universe, was written by Jed & is one of my favourite Grandaddy songs. Pumping synths & lush, simple chord structures underpin Jed’s melancholic verse.

You said I’d wake up dead drunk
Alone in the park
I called you a liar
But how right you were

Air conditioned TV land, 20 grand
Walk to the bank
With shakes from the night before
Staring at the tiki floor

High school wedding ring
Keys are under the mats
Of all the houses here
But not the motels

I try to sing it funny like Beck
But it’s bringing me down
Lower than ground
Beautiful ground

I love that Jed was aware of Beck. Possibly a fan since he writes about imitating his vocal style. Another strange parallel with Futurama. In the season 3 episode, Bending In The Wind, Bender actually meets Beck & ends up performing in his band, playing washboard.

Beck & Bender, Futurama, Bending In The Wind

The song ends mournfully with a verse from the scientists again. This is something that you’d expect to find inscribed on Jed’s gravestone. If Robots were given burials.

Test tones and

Failed clones and

Odd parts made you

I seem to have spent way more time on the Jed subplot than I originally intended. Even beginning with it was an unusual & inexplicable step to take. Why did I do that?

The main plot of The Sophtware Slump is a kind of technological apocalypse story, equal parts influenced by the Y2K Millennium Bug, which dominated late ’90’s news broadcasts, & Radiohead’s ’97 ode to pre-millennial alienation through technology, OK Computer. Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle has said in interviews that there would have been no The Sophtware Slump without OK Computer. There’s a palpable unease about the systems which were, even in ’99, starting to take over our lives. This sense of unease, in both albums, was artfully rendered by imbuing their Indie Rock sounds with elements from forward looking & futuristic electronic music & Hip Hop. Radiohead filled OK Computer with digital soundscapes, analogue effects (funny how vintage analogue equipment still helps to give music a futuristic feel) & even vocal synthesis. Grandaddy, by contrast, play melancholic, country-tinged Indie Rock but with a strong emphasis on synthesisers (or synthesizers, as they’re an American Band). I read a comment on a Facebook post once which described them as how the commenter wished Neil Young sounded in the ’80’s. When participating in a game where you had to describe your favourite band, but badly, I described Grandaddy as “Sad & bleepy. Not Radiohead”. Nobody got it.

Opening track, He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s The Pilot, is a soaring ballad of softly strummed acoustic guitars which morphs over 8 minutes into bleeping & fizzing Space Rock. It’s lyrics convey a sense of having no control over your life. & the horror of realising that the people who are supposed to be in charge, supposed to be responsible for us, are too completely out of control. In my opinion, it satirises the attitudes of authorities to the Y2K Millennium m Bug. The panic of Y2K spread throughout society & we watched on in despair as even our leaders didn’t know how to deal with it. Or if it would even be a problem. There are two schools of thought about this in the present. Obviously Y2K wasn’t a problem in the end. Many authority figures put this down to the huge amounts of money that were poured into combatting it.

After the melancholic fade out of the opening track, we end up in more Pop orientated territory with Hewlett’s Daughter. This is scene setting for the post-collapse society we live in. I’ve always assumed the name Hewlett was a reference to the technology firm, Hewlett Packard, but I may be wrong. The song unfolds a story about Hewlett’s “stolen guns” & describes the wreckage of the world. “High above the wrecks on ice shelfs and glaciers” & “where sofas float on roads”.

After Jed The Humanoid (see above) we stay in the upbeat Pop territory with the sublime The Crystal Lake. The Crystal Lake is one of my favourite singles of all time & has a wonderful video too. The juxtaposition between the fairly straightforward Indie Pop & the arpeggiated, bleeping synth patterns creates is atmospheric indeed. Lyrically, The Crystal Lake, feels to me to be the regrets of one who has gone too far from where they want to be. Almost like floating downstream & getting further & further from safety. There’s a luddite sensibility to The Crystal Lake which also seems to address the encroachment on nature of the modern world. The video shows this conflict in reverse, with country, outdoors types wandering in awe & terror around a modern city.

Chartsengrafs follows this conflict with the closest Grandaddy ever get to Alternative Rock (except for the glorious Levitz). Simple synth leads clash against power chords & the lyrics deal with the despair of leaving behind fun for more mathematic or science-based pursuits. I’m uncertain whether Lytle personally feels that way. He’s always come across as a proud exponent of “Geek Culture” to me.

Underneath The Weeping Willow is a gentle ballad of piano chords & arpeggiated synth notes. It feels like a refuge from modernity in nature & I suspect that it is supposed to represent the calm before the storm. The following track, Broken Household Appliance National Forest is the most on-the-nose track in the main storyline. It has downtempo, atmospheric synth verses which build up into the heavy riffing of the chorus (another rare example of them approaching Alternative Rock. Twice on one album). The lyrics detail nature adapting to the waste of mankind & the discarded technology which was wiped out by the Y2K. I was going to select a couple of lines as examples but they’re all so good, & so essential to the storyline, that I’m just going to reprint the lyrics whole:

Sit on the toaster like a rock
No need to worry about a shock
All of the microwaves are dead
Just like the salamander said
The refrigerators house the frogs
The conduit is the hollow log

Broken household appliance national forest
Air conditioners in the woods
Broken household appliance national forest
Mud and metal mixing good

Meadows resemble showroom floors
Owls fly out of oven doors
Stream banks are lined with vacuum bags
Flowers reside with filthy rags
A family of deer were happy that
The clearing looked like a laundry mat

Broken household appliance national forest
Air conditioners in the woods
Broken household appliance national forest
Mud and metal mixing good

From Broken Household Appliance National Forest we come back to the conclusion of the Jed subplot with Jed’s Other Poem (Beautiful Ground) which I discuss above. This is followed by a short instrumental track, E. Knievel Interlude (The Perils Of Keeping It Real), which serves as a sinisterly atmospheric palate cleanser. It alos has an air of waiting room or elevator music to it, which I think is appropriate to the following track, Miner At The Dial-A-View.

Miner At The Dial-A-View is an older, unused track which Jason Lytle adapted for The Sophtware Slump. He says it’s about a miner on another planet who is able to use the Dial-A-View service to view the places he misses back on Earth. Despite the sci-fi concept, Miner At The Dial-A-View essentially predicts Google Earth or Streetview long before they became a reality. The lyrics convey a sense of alienation, isolation & longing for his old life. Lyrically, it contains some of the most vivid imagery that Jason Lytle has ever created, in my opinion. “Tire tracks on federal roads look like crash-landed crows from the Dial-A-View” is one of those lines that I wish I had written. It’s probably my favourite song on The Sophtware Slump. I love the melancholic vibes & the thin electronic sheen. It ends with a single word, “dream”, echoing off & segueing gloriously into the albums closing track, So You’ll Aim Towards The Sky. A soaring, elegiac pop song which builds & builds into an epic soundscape of twinkling piano notes, synthetic strings & repeated falsetto vocals.

So today, on The Sophtware Slump’s 20th anniversary, give it a listen & just try & bend your head around the fact that this contemporary masterpiece is now two decades old.

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