When songwriter Jason Lytle made it clear that he was leaving California’s central valley for a new home in Montana, a friend wondered if Lytle’s music would start sounding “all rustic and alt-country-ish.” This friend was relieved to discover that the exposure to buttes and waterfalls did not cause Lytle to turn off his analog synths. Part of that distinct Grandaddy sound–and it was very much theirs, as you couldn’t mistake their texture for that of any other artist–was a retro-futurist contrast of chilly, ‘70s-soundtrack keyboards and warm, welcoming melodies. It was an oil-smudged, battery-powered, melancholic take on the 21st century, where the replacement parts don’t always fit and the screens blinker out from time to time. It’s the jury-rigged spaceship Sam Rockwell’s character helmed in “Moon,” with its tile flooring coated in layers of unmopped grease.
Lytle’s new album, “Dept. of Disappearance” (Anti-), projects these half-working technologies and gentle melodies onto a new frontier: the sheer rock face of the mountain. The album is an almost-but-not-really concept record that nods to the struggle of the climber (“Matterhorn,” “Last Problem of the Alps”) starving in the shadow of the mountaintop. Lytle’s very singable melodies work best when the tempos crawl, and here, the songs are slower and prettier than ever. References to death appear in nearly every song here, but the chords are so epic that the album plays much more as lovely than lonely, more majestic than morose. “Dept. of Disappearance” is a sublime and beautiful piece of work.
The live versions of his songs are considerably different from the fully produced album settings–they’re just as moving, but far more stripped back. He performed a recent “NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert” that is now up on YouTube, and it’s a good example of how well these songs work on acoustic guitar and synth. It’s also a testament to the durable construction of Lytle’s songs. The floor might be scuffed up, but the framework of the ship is very, very solid. KEVIN SEAL