We’re releasing an exclusive, 20th anniversary edition of Grandaddy’s Under The Western Freeway in our store this month. Here’s an essay about the album and how it’s still relevant themes of isolation, loneliness and the limitations of existence.
Grandaddy were paid only cautious, casual respect prior to The Sophtware Slump, their turn-of-the-century-minded sophomore statement that finally accrued the band serious artistic accolades. Fixated on the dehumanizing, isolating effects of technology, the album was OK Computer’s slacker kid brother— as wary of the great promise of technology without involving itself in the activism. Call it “apathetic android,” or a premonition of the reality that accompanied the computer’s dominance of our professional, personal and interpersonal lives: All roads funnel back to the digital highway, and even “face time” is now just another euphemism for staring into a screen. Jason Lytle, the band’s lead singer/songwriter/producer, knew solitary repetition and communicative dissonance would be the result of ubiquitous electronic convenience, but the trick is that he was already lonely long before appliances replaced physical relationships.
The Sophtware Slump isn’t Grandaddy’s definitive opus on loneliness. Prior to Lytle pinpointing encroaching technological advancements as the culprit of society’s misanthropic aimlessness, he released an entire album exploring isolation as a more individualized phenomenon. He blamed metropolises before they were retrofitted with streamlined LED-storefronts, railed against catch-all advice before it became searchable online and was resistant to change under the guise of “progress” before anyone sent out press releases pre-praising their proposals. Lytle, both musically and personally, has always preferred to keep to himself, and his definitive work on the subject of being alone was released three years before he penned the lines that ultimately depict his core songwriting ethos: “I dream at night / Of going home someday / Somewhere so far away.”
Under The Western Freeway, Grandaddy’s 1997 debut full-length, is an album of low-budget lullabies, all sung decidedly to oneself. Lytle plays the role of a disarmingly charming self-deprecating comedian, embodying the conclusions of Beck’s “Loser” without any of its spirit, over the course of 11 tracks. The album opens with a requiem to being average, and is populated with stories of laughing stocks, self-imposed alienation and not having a good time. Lytle had to invent the term “imdumbivinity” because our existing language for dejected outcasts didn’t capture the breadth of his “lonerism.” Barring a sole, short vignette about poisonous Thai food, every song reflects Lytle’s rattled, withdrawn perspective—one numb from silence, now sensitive to noise.
Although an album about limitations—individual, romantic, societal—Under The Western Freeway sounds like infinite possibilities. Lytle’s lyrics are largely devoid of hope, yet his music is aural comfort food for kids who grew up knowing garages as their only safe spaces. “Collective Dreamwish Of Upperclass Elegance” is a poem on idyllic reclusion, framing the city—oft-touted as the point of departure for personal and professional development—as a harrowing sabbatical to escape from, over music that politely plods, persistent but without vigor. There’s an intrinsic beauty to Grandaddy’s patient mid-tempos, which are rusted in cheap distortion and painted-over by synthesizer hums. It’s that core duality between their rough edges and glossy glow that explains how a band this inward wound up touring with Elliot Smith and opening for Coldplay.
Grandaddy were perhaps the only “space-rock” band that sounded down to Earth—their style of grandeur improbably quaint. Sci-fi effects are employed often, but they’re rarely flashy—more Star Trek on VHS than Avatar in 3-D. Often times synths blare like they’re coming out of speakers from a graphing calculator. Yet tonal quality belies the innate strength of these compositions, and even the most jingle-level instrumentation imparts a stunning sense of purpose, from the descending “chopsticks” piano line of “Summer Here Kids” to the squirming midpoint solo on “Why Took Your Advice.” The title track is a swelling tide or orchestral Midi juxtaposed against an underbelly of bustling buzzing, sounding as dismal as it does blissful. Lytle is an attentive gear-head, and is perhaps even more attuned to the subtleties in his sounds because they’re lo-fi. He’s filtered out all the dressings and stripped every note down to their most essential timbres.
“[Lytle] was already lonely long before appliances replaced physical relationships.”
The album cover offers an apt first impression; Under The Western Freeway is an ideal headphone album—emitting a warm, nostalgic aura via enveloping clouds of fuzz and simple, dusty melodies. It’s the type of music that is only suited for the most solitary means of listening. And though relative to their later works the album failed to strongly set Grandaddy’s songwriting apart from that of their indie-prog-pop peers, Lytle holds a number of discrete qualities that carved out his own identity among them: There’s a sweet sincerity in his delivery avoided by the more mocking, detached Pavement or the Flaming Lips, working at an individual scale outside of the more existential scope of Built To Spill. Grandaddy are as interested in constructing soundscapes as any of those previously mentioned bands, but do so with a muted energy, usually contained within a sense of mellow melancholy.
Which isn’t to say that Lytle’s not interested in happiness. The sublime, 64-bit “A.M. 180” is an enormously romantic would-be anthem if Lytle could muster the momentum. It’s an ode to doing nothing with the perfect partner, or rather that’s what Lytle intends to do when “something good happens” and he and his beloved can finally be together again. Lytle’s not a total pessimist, but he’s a self-stunting realist, so he sings from a place of desire without motivation, which is perhaps the loneliest place of all. The title-sentiment of “Everything Beautiful Is Far Away,” an airy, gently sputtering pseudo-ballad, captures most directly the album’s defining spirit: a belief in joy just out of reach, in the definitive existence of a paradise you have no way of getting to.
“Lytle demonstrates the great irony of music for drifters—that listening to it can make you feel a little less alone yourself.”
The album comes to a close on a pre-hashtag “sorry, not sorry,” with Lytle first seemingly embarrassed by his excluded, repressed point of view, before standing his ground with confidence and acknowledging its validity. The gesture would almost be inspirational if the last forty minutes hadn’t been steeped in so palpable a sadness. Under The Western Freeway is not an album that relishes in its desolation, but Lytle is unapologetic nonetheless because a key quality of seclusion is not needing to answer to anyone else. So Lytle doubles-down, following his non-apology with a hidden track of crickets, hammering it in as aggressively as he can that this is an album about what solitude feels like—that by singing to himself he’s reaching out exclusively to introverts who will hear his voice through the one in their own heads.
Doing so, Lytle demonstrates the great irony of music for drifters—that listening to it can make you feel a little less alone yourself—finally heard in full color among a dimming cacophony of extroverts and expectations. That’s the legacy the band left behind with a sea of fervently grateful fans, the kind that Lytle himself cites as one of the main reasons he felt compelled to follow-through with Grandaddy’s return in 2012 and subsequently release a new album in this year’s Last Place. Lytle would never own up to the notion that he’s some kind of hero for the lonely, but it’s not an inaccurate depiction. His music isn’t for encouraging empathizers to go out and make connections with the world; instead, Under The Western Freeway affords listeners a moment to stretch their legs within the empty space they’ve been confined to, to loosen up their muscles in preparation for their next attempt to navigate unwelcoming surroundings. Except this time if they stumble, they know it won’t be as dark for them back at the beginning of the tunnel.