An understated classic of the 00s, now expanded with bonus material.
Mike Diver 2011-08-09
The Sophtware Slump is one of the best albums of the 00s. Released in the first May of the decade, it was up against strong competition commercially (Sonic Youth, Eminem, Pearl Jam) – making its peak of 36 on the UK albums chart impressive indeed. But despite substantial critical praise, the group never broke the mainstream in the manner of similarly concept-heavy alt-rockers like The Flaming Lips and Radiohead. Grandaddy broke up in 2006, their final album Just Like the Fambly Cat an epitaph for a band whose work was singularly styled and frequently stunning.
This is their finest studio set, but far from their most accessible collection. It’s a strange meeting of worlds, buzzing technology butting heads with bucolic retreat, backwoods mentality confounded by modernity. Frontman Jason Lytle produces, as he had on 1997’s debut disc Under the Western Freeway. But while Grandaddy’s first full-length was a bright and bizarre collection of oddball pop and hum-along indie (A.M. 180 is its best-known cut), these 46 minutes are rather more muted, introspective musings on expired alcoholic robots – Jed the Humanoid, and its fuzzy companion Jed’s Other Poem (with the great line, "I try to sing it funny like Beck, but it’s bringing me down") – standing in for eccentric essays on alien landscapes. It’s not without moments of instant-fix delight – The Crystal Lake is a perfect five minutes of songwriting gold – but this can be a heavy-going album for newcomers.
But like so many great, so-called must-have long-players, repeat plays reward the listener with treats aplenty. Underneath the Weeping Willow is a tear-jerker to treasure, a sigh of a lyric desperate for retirement from the racket of the real world tugging on the ducts with a velveteen touch, its spare piano backdrop effortlessly beautiful. Hewlett’s Daughter is a calm, contemplative piece that briefly contorts into a clangourous rocker around the two-minute mark; and Broken Household Appliance National Forest is the greatest song ever written about abandoned fridge-freezers. But it’s the closer, So You’ll Aim Towards the Sky, that leaves the most lasting mark – and the biggest lump in the throat. If you don’t feel the slightest bit moved by the time a voice offers a simple "good luck", check your pulse.
At the time of its original release, a handful of critics claimed that The Sophtware Slump was better than OK Computer. At points, one can hear where they were coming from. It’s certainly an essential of its era that has weathered the years well. The disc of extras included with this deluxe edition is, inevitably, something of a mixed bag. Fans will be pleased to get their ears around material from the band’s 2001 EP, Through a Frosty Plate Glass, as well as rough-edged album demos and B sides; but why is there nothing from the Signal to Snow Ratio four-tracker of 1999? Packaged with the original album in 2000 for a few quid more, it points the way to The Sophtware Slump’s masterful melancholy. A no-brainer for inclusion on paper, somehow it’s missing. Baffling, for sure, but it takes nothing away from the album-proper’s enduring excellence.