Grandaddy are a hard band to pin down. Are they America's bearded, chubby answer to Radiohead? The Flaming Lips' slacker younger brothers? Ex-skate-punk hermits who think that the misunderstood electrofolk detour Trans is Neil Young's best album? Whatever the answer, their second album, 2000's The Sophtware Slump, was a revelatory meditation on alienation and loneliness in the Internet age, one that earned them a rabid cult following and a spot on many critics' year-end best-of lists.
Not surprisingly, expectations for their long-awaited follow-up, Sumday, are extremely high, and the buzz is already circulating that the album is a bit of a letdown. One review I read even faulted it for failing to capture the "zeitgeist" the way that The Sophtware Slump did. (Apparently making a good record is not enough these days.) While it's true that Sumday doesn't have anything as grandly ambitious as the epic "He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot" or as eerily heartbreaking as "Jed the Humanoid," group leader Jason Lytle has succeeded in making another collection of melodic, slightly skewed songs that cut deeper with each listen.
Both lyrically and musically, Sumday is a bit of retreat from the last album's breathtaking marriage of technology and roots-music earthiness. The arrangements have been scaled back, with less of the analog-synth squiggles and treated vocals that dominated The Sophtware Slump. That's not to say that they've lost interest in creating interesting musical textures; it feels more like the experimentation has been put towards servicing the songs, rather than vice versa.
The more traditional direction could also be the result of the fact that Lytle seems to be preoccupied with such low-tech concerns as broken hearts ("The Go in the Go-For-It," "Yeah Is What We Had") and aging ("O.K. With My Decay"). Tellingly, the album's most moving moment comes from one of the most simple, straightforward songs they've yet recorded, "The Saddest Vacant Lot in All the World," an unadorned piano ballad about an alcoholic in the midst of a breakup.
Sumday's only real flaw is the creeping sense of professionalism that is starting to emerge in the band's songwriting and playing. The two songs that do revisit the lyrical territory of the last album ("The Group Who Couldn't Say" and "I'm on Standby") feel a bit too much like Grandaddy-by-numbers. Also, the first six songs amble along at the same midtempo lope, an error in sequencing that sometimes makes the album seem more pedestrian than it is. A little more noise would have gone a long ways towards breaking up what is sometimes too smooth a ride.
Is Sumday a masterpiece? No. But there are few groups or solo artists capable of creating a collection of pop songs this heartfelt without verging into clichéd AOR mush (Ryan Adams, I'm looking at you). If anything, this won't be canonized like The Sophtware Slump because it's really more fun to listen to than it is to write about (the last album's high concept being, to be blunt, a rock critic's wet dream). Still, Sumday is a fine accomplishment from one of indieland's most dependable bands. And as for who or what Grandaddy are, with Sumday they continue to stake out a sonic territory that is, finally, their own.