The human cost of progress is the heart of The Sophtware Slump.
There’s a wonderful little video out there in the digital wilds that is ostensibly a “making of” about Grandaddy’s minor masterpiece The Sophtware Slump. It features the boys in the band going “fishing” at various places in their hometown of Modesto, California only instead of going to the traditional fishing holes where there might be, you know, fish, the boys throw their hooks into a swimming pool and a couple of public fountains. They discuss the merits of cigarette butts as bait, catch a “soap bottle fish,” reminisce about the time one of them caught a 56” Magnavox TV and even help a local kid catch an empty pack of smokes in one of the public fountains. It’s like a lo-fi version of a George Saunders story where the absurd outcomes of humankind’s horrible habits have become accepted and commonplace. Unlike Saunders, who ramps his concepts up to a fever pitch that threaten to snap at any moment, Grandaddy respond with a sigh and a shrug of the shoulders that mask a deep sense of sadness and ennui. The human cost of progress is the heart of The Sophtware Slump.
The album was released in the latter half of 2000, at a time when American society was still grappling with the tension and excitement of the new millennium. We had just weathered the threat of Y2K and though that fear was neatly put to bed, it shed an unflattering light on our increasing dependence on technology and the repercussions on our hearts and souls. For a romantic like Grandaddy main man Jason Lytle, however, the battle was already lost. Interviews in the years since Slump make it clear that Lytle placed a high value on the solitude provided by nature. In fact, the first thing he did after Grandaddy broke up in 2006 was move to the middle of Montana. As he succinctly puts it on “Underneath the Weeping Willow,” I’ll sleep there so soundly/Until I’m allowed finally/To wake and be happy again.” Or, as on the first single “The Crystal Lake,” he laments that he ever decided to leave nature in the first place: “Should never have left the crystal lake/For areas where trees are fake/And dogs are dead with broken hearts/ collapsing by the coffee carts.
Throughout the making of video, we get a few glimpses of the band at work in the “studio” which is really just Lytle’s charmingly messy house. A mixing board and monitors are set up in one room, drummer Aaron Burtch gently drums away in another, guitarist Jim Fairchild plays an acoustic guitar in the shower and Lytle happily pounds away on a piano in the kitchen. It creates an image of the band as a cohesive unit which Lytle would ultimately admit was a total fallacy. The reality was more Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys than the all-for-one-one-for-all ethos of The Beatles. Lytle was the mercurial genius who did everything himself but still needed a band to fulfill the music industry’s need for a fully packaged product. And Lytle proved to be just as difficult and exacting as Wilson. He once described Slump as “a lo-fi record that’s trying to sound hi-fi,” and claimed that he would re-record the album if he could.
Even if the sound of the record didn’t quite match the sound Lytle envisioned, for the listener, that lo-fi sound is one of the key charms of Slump. Had Lytle made the album that he heard in his head, the humanity would likely have been digitized right out (i.e. Grandaddy’s tepid follow-up Sumday). It’s the difference between the George Lucas that made the original Star Wars using the technology available to him and the George Lucas that went back and corrected the “mistakes.” The lo-fi production captures the aching desperation of the lyrics in a far more approachable way. Where a band like Radiohead fed on the general anxiety and tension of the era, Lytle’s take is more resigned. What’s one more broken down air-conditioner in a forest already full of them? The Radiohead connection is something that was not lost on Lytle. He was incredulous that “an album about trees and computers that came out right after OK Computer” would be so highly regarded and saw it as a symptom of the dysfunction of the music industry.
The Sophtware Slump is remarkably prescient. In a world where cell phones, AI and social media are ubiquitous and create a false sense of connection, songs like “Jed the Humanoid” and “Miner at the Dial-A-View” take on a new resonance. The latter explores FOMO from the perspective of a miner on a distant planet using technology to gaze upon his hometown from afar and, even though it sounds like it was recorded in the deepest parts of space, the regret of the life missed out on is palpable. The idea of looking at distant places through a screen feels particularly apropos given our current stuck-at-home situation. The album starts with the thesis statement of “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot”, a heart-wrenching, existential, nearly nine-minute epic that dumps the listener straight into Lytle’s headspace. As Lytle asks, “Are you giving in 2000 man” another voice laments, “Did you love this world/ And did this world not love you?”. Even 20 years later, it still puts chills down your spine. All of this is wrapped up in the perfect package: the punny but perfect title that seems to sigh at it’s own obviousness, the individual keyboard letters atop the mountain meadow on the cover, the man carrying a keyboard staring at the moon on the back cover. It’s a stunningly comprehensive vision.
As Lytle became increasingly burned-out and disenfranchised by the music industry, he became more reclusive, hiding out in the studio by himself obsessing over keyboard sounds. Grandaddy went on to record two more albums before “breaking up” and Lytle recorded several solo albums before the band reunited again in 2017 and recorded new album, Last Place. Sadly, just as the band were about to embark on a tour in support of the album, bassist Kevin Garcia suffered a stroke and died forcing Grandaddy to cancel their live shows, a terribly sad end to a band that always seemed to accept defeat as a foregone conclusion. Slump remains Grandaddy’s defining statement and stands out as a key work of the millennium it helped to usher in.