Grandaddy 2024
Photo: Dustin Askland / Charm School Media

Grandaddy Try Country-Style Ballads With Mixed Results

With Blu Wav, their first album in seven years, Grandaddy ask, “What if we just forget the upbeat synth-rock this time and make sad ballads?”

Blu Wav
16 February 2024

Over their years as a band, Grandaddy have created albums that deftly navigate between upbeat synth-rock songs and slow, devastatingly sad ballads. With Blu Wav, their first album in seven years, frontman, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Jason Lytle asks, “What if we just forgot the upbeat synth-rock this time?” Lytle is, of course, aware of what he’s doing. On “Jukebox App”, the chorus varies slightly each time, but at one point, he declares, “Don’t let this go on / Or I’ll play all our sad ones.”

Lytle claims that the album title comes from the music’s combining of bluegrass and new wave styles. The new wave era synth sounds are certainly present, as they always are with Grandaddy, but as for the bluegrass? Well, apparently, Lytle likes bluegrass waltzes, and the record features quite a few slow waltzes. Other than that, though, there’s no banjo, mandolin, or upright bass to be found here and no energetic picking. However, Lytle acquired a pedal steel guitar in the last seven years. The results resemble something much closer to classic country ballads with beds of synth chords than a genuine merging of bluegrass and new wave.

As for the songs themselves, the enjoyment level may depend on a listener’s tolerance for sad ballads. There are some excellent sad ballads on Blu Wav. This is to be expected from a group that once squeezed tears of empathy out of a robot committing suicide (“Jed the Humanoid”). Grandaddy also drolly named a song “The Saddest Vacant Lot in All the World”, amusingly rhymed “Datsun” with “hot sun” within it, and still made it a heart-wrenching track.

Much like the aforementioned “Saddest Vacant Lot”, “You’re Going to Be Fine and I’m Going to Hell” lays out its agenda in the title. Slow guitar strumming, keyboard washes, and layers of vocal harmony open the song, but most of that fades away once Lytle starts singing. He gradually recounts a tale of trekking somewhere to meet with an ex before concluding with the title. The second verse mentions that it’s been a year since he was literally stranded in a field when she left with a new guy. An extended keyboard solo follows, after which Lytle sings, “Well, we lost out on love / And you’re better off / But for me it’s not going so well.” “You’re Going to Be Fine…” is a song that lays it on thick, but it’s such a well-made version of the stereotypical sad country ballad, especially with the synth flourishes, that it really works.

On the other hand, the deceptively upbeat “Ducky, Boris, and Dart” nearly collapses under the weight of its triptych of sob stories. Acoustic guitar, pedal steel accompaniment, and synth chords contribute to a bright, major key track. Lytle sings about a trio of companions. The lyrics don’t specify, but they seem to be pets; at least, Ducky and Dart do. Boris could easily be a human. Regardless, each verse ends with the character missing and presumed dead. Despite Lyrtle promising in the chorus, “Thank you my friend / But this ain’t the end,” it sounds like the end for each of them. It’s a bit much, especially coming as track ten on the record, and even more so for the major key fakeout of a moment of lightness.

On most records, “Cabin in My Mind” and “Watercooler” would count as slower ballads, but on Blu Wav, they function as uptempo tracks. The first full-length song, “Cabin in My Mind,” sets the scene, perhaps deceptively. Lytle essentially sings about an idyllic fantasy setting over pleasant acoustic guitar strums, pedal steel accents, occasional hollow-body electric guitar riffs, and relaxed drumming. “Watercooler” opens with a loose band noise before locking into an easygoing piano and drum groove. Lytle sings about a co-worker who passes him on her way to the water cooler, then reveals that they hooked up, and he’s ghosting her now. Musically, the song stays light and pleasant, but the chorus is just, “And you cry in the bathroom stall / ‘Cause I won’t call although I know you hurt.”

Of the rest of the slow, country-adjacent songs, only “Jukebox App” and “East Yosemite” stand out. The former works because it shows the only levity and self-awareness on Blu Wav. Musically, it’s the same well-produced sort of country waltz. However, the story of Lytle using the titular app and torturing the bar patrons from the parking lot as he torments an ex drinking inside with a new boyfriend is unique and entertaining. “East Yosemite”, with its piano and synths arrangement, closely resembles a classic Grandaddy song, even with the pedal steel breaks. It’s also place-specific, with Lytle singing about carving a heart into a tree in Yosemite National Park and sleeping in the park next to Yosemite Falls. It’s a moody and reflective track, but it’s not intended to be crushingly sad.

Blu Wav contains another handful of similar, less distinctive ballads. It also features four briefer pieces: an opener, a closer, and two brief interstitials. These are very much of a piece with the rest of the record, but none particularly stand out. “Blu Wav” has lyrics, “Blu Wav Buh Bye” doesn’t, “Let’s Put This Pinto on the Moon” is mostly synths, while “Yeehaw AI in the Year 2025” is mostly piano.

On their best album, The Sophtware Slump, Grandaddy got the balance of upbeat and sad songs, hooks and noise, and electronic and analog just right. The rest of their catalog mostly features other strong records that at least come close to hitting that balance. Blu Wav ends up being an interesting experiment not to attempt to find the balance at all. Predictably, there are some excellent sad songs to be found here. Just as predictably, though, when the whole thing sounds essentially the same, the impact is blunted. If Lytle decides to make another Grandaddy album after this, let’s hope he’s at least partially in the mood for something a little more rocking.

RATING 6 / 10