This is a column about long-awaited returns, and while I was deciding on that theme, one of them happened.
In fact, it’s the most important of them – Fleet Foxes have ended their six-year exile with a nine-minute song and the announcement of their third album, Crack-Up. And good lord, that song, “Third of May/Odaigahara,” is excellent. Robin Pecknold’s merry men have kept everything I loved about them – the folksy timelessness, the unearthly harmonies, the soul-lifting tunefulness – and indulged in their ambition. Just listen to that propulsive space-rock section in the middle! Crack-Up is out in June, and it feels to me like the difficult third album, which means I’ll probably love it to pieces.
But the fact that Fleet Foxes resurfaced after six long years with a complex slice of folk-prog does lead to some interesting questions about artists going AWOL and what we expect when they come back. Pecknold has been promising new Fleet Foxes music for many of those six years, and you can hear in “Third of May/Odaigahara” just where those years went. Do we look to returning artists’ new music to justify the time they spent away? Do they owe us that time? Do we even deserve an explanation? I know it can feel like we do, but do we?
And I mean, of course we don’t, but I’ll admit to feeling relieved and more on board with this new Fleet Foxes because I can hear the steps forward the band has taken in the past half-decade. I’m one of maybe fifteen people alive who enjoyed Chinese Democracy, partially because the years of work that went into it were audible in every groove of that thing. (Whether it was overworked is another question for another day.) But is it necessary for a band to move ahead by leaps and bounds over a long absence? Or is it enough to just remind you of how good they were, and still are?
Take Grandaddy, for instance. The project of California songwriter Jason Lytle, Grandaddy emerged in the mid-‘90s, but made its mark in 2000 with an excellent second album, The Sophtware Slump. I originally heard that album while working at a record store, and I can still remember first experiencing the long, glorious coda of “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot.” Lytle and his comrades made two fantastic albums as Grandaddy after that, and called it quits in 2006 with a stunning denouement called Just Like the Fambly Cat.
Eleven years later, Lytle has revived the Grandaddy name for Last Place, the band’s fifth album. In truth, Lytle never went away – he delivered a few strong solo albums and produced records for others, including last year’s Band of Horses effort Why Are You OK. But bringing Grandaddy back isn’t just a matter of enlisting Aaron Burtch to drum on these songs. It’s an aesthetic, a point of view that is distinct from Lytle’s own work. And on Last Place, he ably recaptures not just the sound but the feel of classic Grandaddy. This may be a solo effort under the band name (like Fambly Cat was), but Lytle knows what makes Grandaddy special.
From the first notes of “Way We Won’t,” Last Place is a classic Grandaddy record. The ever-present quarter-note shimmy that propels the best Grandaddy songs is everywhere here, along with the low-tech synths, Lytle’s whispered vocals and the songs about how technology leaves us even more alone. Had this come out right after Sumday it would have fit right in with the band’s catalog. Lytle is cognizant of just how a song like “That’s What You Get for Getting Out of Bed” can and should fit in with the aesthetic he’s established, and a bona fide Grandaddy epic like “This is the Part” feels as comfortable as a well-worn suit.
Is this a good thing? I think so, in this case. It’s been 11 years since we had a Grandaddy record, and all Lytle had to do with Last Place is remind us how much we love and miss this sound. By album’s end, he’s done that and more. He resurrects Jed the Humanoid from Sophtware on “Jed the 4th” (this being the fourth song to bear his name), giving his story a tragic update, and then offers up what might be his best thesis on the mingling of technology and humanity, the piano-driven “A Lost Machine.” “Everything about us is a lost machine,” Lytle sings, his voice cracking and pleading, over and over. It’s beautiful.
And it’s 100 percent Grandaddy. If the goal of Last Place was to remind us that no one, not even Lytle on his own, sounds like Grandaddy, that mission was accomplished. I hope this return is a long-lasting one, and of course next time out I will be listening for growth and ambition, but for now this is exactly what I wanted after more than a decade away.
Perhaps it’s just a function of time. Eleven years is long enough that all I need is a reminder of how wonderful Grandaddy was. But five years – the amount of time between the new Shins album, Heartworms, and the last one – might not be enough to forgive a lackluster effort just because I miss the band. In fact, Heartworms, like Port of Morrow before it, makes me miss the band even more, since virtually nothing I loved about them is in evidence here.
That probably shouldn’t be a surprise, since the Shins effectively broke up after 2007’s delightful Wincing the Night Away. Since then, James Mercer has been offering solo efforts under the band’s name, and they’re decidedly lesser things. The Shins made their mark by merging Brian Wilson-esque melodies with shimmering lo-fi production, and even as their sound grew, the twisting, mesmerizing melodies remained. But when Mercer emerged as the Shins in 2012 with Port of Morrow, the writing had taken a dive into the average, the normal.
That trend continues on Heartworms, an album that sounds as overworked as it does underbaked. The album was written and produced by Mercer, and it is positively overloaded with sounds, mainly goopy synthesizers. The synths aren’t used for effect, as they are on the Grandaddy album, but to fill spaces left empty by the songs. Like the last Shins album, Heartworms sports some of Mercer’s laziest and least exciting songwriting. When one of the highlights is a simple one-four-five bit of blues-country like “Mildenhall,” something’s off.
And honestly, it’s only by comparison that Heartworms suffers. As an average indie-inflected synthesizer pop record, it’s not bad. It just doesn’t live up to the name it’s been released under. There are bits of it I like – the “ba-da, ba-da” bits of “Rubber Ballz,” for example, and the verse melody of “Dead Alive” – but there’s nothing that rises to the level of the band’s first three records. It’s slightly less underwhelming than Morrow, but still underwhelming. The Shins started off by creating Pet Sounds on a shoestring, and now Mercer is giving us the equivalent of Brian Wilson’s first few solo albums. This is his Imagination, a fairly uninspired effort drowned in keyboard sounds.
After five years away, I definitely hoped for more. I’m finding myself questioning why this took five years to make, whereas I was impressed with the sheer amount of work that went into the Fleet Foxes single. It is, of course, silly to expect that Mercer spent all five of those years working on Heartworms, or that Pecknold spent all six years crafting Crack-Up. We don’t deserve to believe that we own that time, or that we’re owed it. We get the music we get. But there’s no way to deny that absence sets expectation.
I’d be more forgiving of Heartworms had it come out three years ago, and I know that’s just my own desire for more and better Shins music. Life is short, time is finite, we’re only going to get to hear so much. That’s really at the core of my excitement over returns and reunions – the sense that I lived to hear this. I want to live to hear it all. I know I won’t, but I still want to. So I will wait however long I am able, and if what I’m given at the end of that wait isn’t enough, I will keep on waiting.
Next week, speaking of time passing, I’ll dive into the Magnetic Fields’ 50 Song Memoir. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.