The American state of Montana: a.k.a. Big Sky Country, a.k.a. The Treasure State, a.k.a. The Last Best Place, bearing the state motto of “Oro y Plata” (Gold and Silver). The state of juxtapositions: open, small-town, welcoming attitudes and active cultural xenophobia, a Democratic governor and a Republican lieutenant governor, the infamous “Chinook” wind that can bring below-freezing temperatures to 50 or 60 degrees. My birth state and the third least population-dense is an infamous place to hide the fuck out; Richard Brautigan, Michael Keyton, Margot Kidder, Peter Fonda, Huey Lewis, Ted Kazynski, and Elizabeth Clare Prophet have all found Montana as a place of hiding, either literally (in the case of Ted Kazynski) or generally (as in the indifference to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s presence ). Despite family and familiar connections, the state’s relative remoteness is what I remember it for the most.
So of what surprise is it that Jason Lytle would dissolve his former group Grandaddy, leave his hometown of Modesto, CA, flee to Montana, and title is his second solo album Dept. of Disappearance? For a former Montanan who’s seen the allure of seclusion in action, very little surprise.
Excluding this whole Montana thing, followers of Lytle’s music are probably well-versed in his bleakness, singularity, and desire for separation. However, Dept. of Disappearance is incredibly dark, even in comparison to Grandaddy’s pastorally unhappy The Sophtware Slump. It’s an album that’s so bleak that it draws comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, albeit with much less blood and violence. If there is any hope to be found in Dept. of Disappearance, it’s up to the listener or participator to bring the hope, as what Lytle gives provides none. Don’t take the album’s single “Get Up and Go” as positive. In fact, don’t even listen to it outside of the album, as it will lose all context. When Lytle sings, “Get up and go you can do it/ Everything’s gonna be alright,” he’s trying to offer an almost empty packet of faith that occurs midway through the album’s hopeless journey. Followed by “Last Problem of the Alps,” which recalls a methodical, lonely, and eternal existence in isolation, whatever’s left over from “Get Up and Go” is absolutely gone. Note the presence of cold, canyon-like wind in the album (in “Last Problem of the Alps,” “Somewhere There’s a Someone”), follow it straight to “Face down in the desert floor” in “Your Final Setting Sun,” and you’re left in a truly bucolic (a word I hated in recent use, but for someone who grew up with dead-landscape Montana winters, a word I actively mean) space where warm synthetics are the only comforts to the physically and emotionally cold surroundings.
“Gimme Click Gimme Grid” finishes out this emotional exhaustion, yearning for simplicity with the repeated expression of “If I claim that I did anything/ I’ll claim that’s what I did/ Gimme click/ Gimme grid,” contrasted against the complex arrangement between synthesizers, programmed and played drums, and what could be constituted as multiple suites between each song. Beyond Lytle’s ability to balance simplicity and complexity, it’s amazing how well he’s able to express that feeling between justification and insecurity in self-imposed exile. Through expressions that would be awkward on paper, feelings uncompounded by abstraction, Lytle reaches the base of internal conflict through the most direct route possible.
I am personally surprised by this album for a few reasons — one, that Lytle makes a sort of orchestrated perfection feel so human. My normal taste and aesthetic leans toward accidents, the imperfect and impure, but Dept. of Disappearance’s careful attention seems like the product of a focused isolationist, the moment where lost contact means a heightened sense of detail. I’m also surprised by how well he seems to capture, what feels to me, the state of Montana, behind in trends and technologies, surrounded by constantly familiar people while feeling despairingly alone, as strangers seem to create the space between possibility of new contact and that feeling of “everyone here knows everybody.” I’ve heard it said that some of the best writing about New York City has come from outsiders to the city, and in Lytle’s case, I feel that about Montana. Any insider would have too much of the constant similarity of their surroundings to see it for anything else. As I grew up there, I heard exclusive rants against Californians from my parents, family, pretty much everybody (which made me want to live in California as a kid). But I haven’t heard, read, or seen anything that portrays or recalls the state as beautifully as Dept. of Disappearance. (A River Runs Through It be damned, with all respect to Norman Maclean, who was a great writer.)
I know the state is growing, as is the planet, in population, but may no great catastrophic climate event change Montana into a tropical paradise. I’d hate for the US to lose one of its best isolationist states. I’d hate to lose the disdain and divinity for which I remember it. And I’d hate to lose the ability of an outsider to remember it better than I do.