Reading reviews of The Sophtware Slump would be a lot easier if you did not have to read sentences like “easily the equal of OK Computer” (The Independent), and even two decades later, people are still making comparisons to that album, which only makes sense from a theme perspective (both albums have an overarching theme about the uncertainties of technology’s impact on humanity). Certainly not sonically (OK Computer sounds like a digitized rock band, mostly thanks to Nigel Godrich’s production, whereas The Sophtware Slump sounds like a rock band with prominent keyboard/synth parts; just compare the covers) or, y’know, quality-wise. Surprisingly, it’s Jason Lytle who’s most level-headed about it: “I would record The Sophtware Slump over again. The fact that this album has gotten this sort of acclaim only reconfirms to me what a load of shit this business is. An album about trees and computers that came out right after OK Computer? I don’t get it… but I do.”
Not that other comparisons are better. Pitchfork’s Mike Powell writes that “At the time, Grandaddy weren’t the only band that played sparkly, cinematic indie music: Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs had come out in 1998, and the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin came out in 1999. The difference is in both scale and character: Unlike the Flaming Lips or Mercury Rev, Grandaddy were a five-person band that sounded like five people playing together in a room, not five people using the studio to make the sound of a hundred. Even when they use synthesizers to replicate orchestral instruments, it has a miniaturistic quality, like the grandeur of early Hollywood trapped inside a snowglobe.” The Soft Bulletin – again, a superior album but that’s beside the point – launched (quite literally, launched, with a countdown and all) into space and only touched back down (“Buggin’”, “Sleeping on the Roof”) when the drugs wore off. By contrast, Sophtware – starting here, Grandaddy went by way of the Smashing Pumpkins here with the silly misspelt words, an unfortunate trend that would continue until they disbanded – isn’t a psychedelic experience, and if they sound like the Flaming Lips, that’s mostly because Jason Lytle sounds like Wayne Coyne, especially falsetto-wise.
What Sophtware sounds like then, is a more polished version of Under the Western Freeway, particularly of the second half (the lesser half). Indeed, some of the tricks are repeated: the backing vocals of “Everything Beautiful is Far Away” on “Miner at the Dial-A-View”; the arpeggios of “Go Progress Chrome” and “Lawn & So On” on “The Crystal Lake” (used to more evocative effect); you even get another short, keyboard-led instrumental in “E. Knievel.” What results is an album that’s certainly more consistent than that album, but you won’t find anything worthy of the riffs of “A.M. 180” or “Summer Here Kids” (or its choruses), and because of the polish, you won’t find anything as compelling as the drums of “Nonphenomenal Lineage” or the ennui explored on “Collective Dreamwish.”
The themes continue, minus the pre-millennium tension (that may have merely been incidental in retrospect): anxiety over incoming technologies and how they may impact people, and watching strip malls erect in one’s backyard. (The former is, of course, strengthened today as technology development has become exponential; does anyone else get a bit flustered that the optimistic reports that automation won’t negatively impact employment – ie. the factories in Germany – seem to dance over specific types of employment? I think of Japan often, a country that’s automated a lot, and the shift of employment from full-time to temporary contracts (the ones without benefits) and what resulted in the happiness of the people. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.)
A positive: Jason Lytle gets specific. The most notable example is, of course, the fictional tale of a humanoid named Jed whose creators lose interest in it, which prompts it to discover booze which becomes its undoing. It reads like a ridiculous story to write a song about, and the sonics come very close to being overblown, with the vocal melody that seems fitting for a solo piece in a musical to get the ball rolling, the operatic backdrop that begins halfway through or the backing vocals that repeat (almost) every line (“We lost a friend…we lost a friend…”), but it neatly sidesteps (or maybe straddles) that threat the entire way through. Meanwhile, the immediately preceding song is about a failed relationship (“Hewlett’s daughter / Loved her father / And I think she loved me too / For a little while”) that offers some autobiographical details about Lytle (“Now I’m treating water / and waste at night”).
Actually, guitarist Jim Fairchild posits that “Jed the Humanoid” isn’t fictional at all, but allegorical: “For some reason virtually every single person who talks about that song is convinced that Jason is singing from the perspective of a robot, which is – I don’t know. It sounds like the most autobiographical song on the record, almost. Everybody’s totally like ‘No, no, no, he’s singin’ about a robot.‘ Well, no, he’s not.” It throws the song into an even more interesting perspective.
Lytle’s also upped the tune department, packing in catchy hooks (ie. the repeated cries of “My mind!”, sung like he’s waving bye-bye to it, on “Chartsengrafs”) and melodies (“Hewlett’s Daughter,” though the backing vocals filling in the empty spaces in the second instance of the melody are unnecessary, especially when he deploys the exact same trick on the very next song; “Miner at the Dial-A-View” and “So You’ll Aim Toward the Sky”). A welcome development, since that was (is) hardly his forte. Texturally, the insistent trilling throughout “Underneath the Weeping Willow” elevates it from standard ballad affair, but of course the best song on both fronts is “The Crystal Lake,” with that aforementioned synth arpeggio emulating a crystal lake (albeit one that’s exaggeratedly digital) and Lytle’s most melodic verses on the entire album.
And yet, never the best songwriter, tracks outside the stretch from 2-5 have their issues: nobody could’ve made a mouthful like “Broken Household Applicance National Forest” work as a hook, and you couldn’t say it was admirable for them to try, because it wasn’t admirable in the first place and elsewhere, the tune of “Miner at the Dial-A-View” doesn’t justify the runtime (similar to Western Freeway’s “Laughing Stock”). The same goes for the middle part of the opener, “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot”; often, indie fans really like when their bands get ambitious with a long suite like this even if the band in question don’t have the instrumental and/or songwriting chops to go (indie) prog. And while I really like the segue between the first two parts (“Are you ready?”), I wish they picked a more normal sounding instrument; it sounds like a guitar being bullied into a banjo or maybe a keyboard being bullied into a guitar.
Ultimately, I miss the fuzz, and the Pitchfork quotation brings up a point that “Grandaddy … sounded like five people playing together in a room” which wasn’t necessarily true of Western Freeway; they sounded like two people with a drum machine. With better results, I may add.
“What a sad, sad album. There’s not a happy song on it, really. But there’s no angst or despair either, because angst and despair are exhausting emotions. Most of the time, Lytle sounds like the archetypal 90s slacker: observant, slow-moving, dulled by a suburban kind of pain he can’t shake. Beck in 1994, without panache or a flair for Art. Beck comes up once, actually, in “Jed’s Other Poem (Beautiful Ground)”, a lyric supposedly written by their robot friend, Jed: “I try to sing it funny like Beck/ But it’s bringin’ me down.” Cheer up: It didn’t get better, but it didn’t get much worse, either.” Personally, yeah, there’s lots to be weary or even unhappy about, but I think it did get better.