Happy New Year, everybody! I've decided to start 2015 in much the same way as I began 2014: with an in-depth blog post about a rather depressing album. Last year, it was Mogwai's Come On Die Young; this year, it's Under the Western Freeway by Grandaddy. Let's jump in, shall we?
Like The Bends and His 'n' Hers, Grandaddy's first album is a '90s classic that was quickly overshadowed by its immediate sequel. I'm not going to argue that Under the Western Freeway is a magnum-er opus than The Sophtware Slump, but to see it as a mere warm-up would be to greatly underestimate its value.
For one thing, Under the Western Freeway is home to some of the best songs of Grandaddy's career. Summer Here Kids, A.M. 180 and Everything Beautiful is Far Away are arguably held in higher esteem than any individual track from The Sophtware Slump, and Laughing Stock is one of my personal favourites.
And while UtWF's overall quality isn't quite as consistent as The Sophtware Slump's - incidental tracks like Poisoned at Hartsy Thai Food make things feel slightly chewed-up and unfinished - I do feel that the former album is just as thematically engaging as its follow-up. Where The Sophtware Slump is all about mankind's increasing reliance on technology (and where that might lead us), Freeway deals with themes of distance and disillusionment. It's a disquieting state-of-the-nation address that paved the way for Slump's even more disquieting vision of the future.
In a nutshell, this album is all about being unable to find happiness in an increasingly complicated world. For example, Everything Beautiful is Far Away is a (possibly allegorical) story about a man who is stranded on a distant planet and unable to return home; A.M. 180 is a plea to a loved one ("don't change your name, keep it the same, for fear I may lose you").
And it's not just about being unable to reach the things that make you happy - it's also about the disappointment you may encounter when you do finally reach those things. The narrator of Summer Here Kids is utterly failing to collect on summer's promise of "a good time", while the guy in Why Took Your Advice has made various positive efforts (fixed his radio, bought a microscope) but still failed to find any kind of contentment.
The message is clear: happiness is completely out of your reach, and you'll never have it. Happy New Year!