It’s exciting to hear a band figure it out in real-time. The building blocks were always there for Great Grandpa. “Mostly Here,” the song that closes out their new album Four Of Arrows, is originally from 2015, a shining outlier on their first EP, but here it’s the climax of an album that more than earns the track’s gigantic payoff. Although their 2017 debut full-length, Plastic Cough, had a handful of really good songs, it also sounded like they were relying a little too much on imitating a specific brand of spunky and sarcastic ’90s-indebted rock. But it’s clear from the start that Four Of Arrows is a massive level-up. You get the sense that this is the band that Great Grandpa have always wanted to be.
Bands don’t usually make their best albums right out of the gate. Stellar debuts are few and far between. It takes time and dedication to develop the skillset needed to be a musician, and sometimes a band needs a little more experience before they can channel all of their talent into something truly great. It’s scary to think about how you might never have the time or opportunity to figure out how to be as good as you want to be, and the band reflect on that on “Bloom”: “I get anxious on the weekends when I feel I’m wasting time,” Alex Menne sings. “But then I think about Tom Petty/ And how he wrote his best songs when he was 39.”
Petty’s songwriting heights are a lofty goal to aspire to, but Great Grandpa are nothing if not ambitious. The perpetual push to do better, both artistically and personally, is what drives a lot of Four Of Arrows. The songs touch on generational trauma, whether we inherit the mistakes of those who raised us and those who raised them. The band think a lot about the idea of fate, from the tarot card-inspired album title on down, and the ways we try to break out of the mold that life has made for us.
Some of the songs are story songs, like “Rosalie” or “Split Up The Kids,” which offer up, respectively, wrenching snapshots of a hospice patient nearing death and a knotty divorce that leaves scars generations later. Others are about emotions and great big feelings that are too difficult to put into exact words. “Do you feel the same thing that I do?” Menne asks on “Mono No Aware,” a song that’s framed through childhood memories and half-remembered dreams, reflecting on inexplicably beautiful loss, each moment gone before it really starts.
Most of these songs are delivered by Menne — and with that voice, it’d be stupid for them not to be — but they’re representative of the band as a whole. Great Grandpa operate like a sort of mind-meld, even now when half of them live halfway across the country from each other. A big component of our feature about the band was highlighting the equanimity of all its members: Menne, Pat and Carrie Goodwin, Dylan Hanwright, and Cam LaFlam. They all contribute to the process and, while the Goodwins share the majority of the songwriting credit on Four Of Arrows, the songs are filtered through enough different people that they sound communal in their expressions of joy and pain. The perspective shifts often, sometimes even within the same song, and that loose structure within the band itself contributes to Great Grandpa feeling like a united creative front.
Which is probably why Four Of Arrows locks together like a puzzle. The band’s grandiose wonderings about their place in the world solidify into songs that have non-traditional shapes. They are structural wonders, miniature epics that have intros and codas and interludes. The band takes their time building up to conclusions — a far cry from the high-octane, high energy of their debut. “Go slow, big choices” was their mantra to guide them through recording, and they clearly took that patience to heart. Great Grandpa recorded Four Of Arrows with the Seattle-based producer Mike Vernon Davis — they recruited him specifically because of his work on Special Explosion’s To Infinity, another album that has a lot going on — and together they blend country twang and emo catharsis into songs that are sweeping and densely layered, chaotic but elementally correct.
There are a lot of moving parts on Four Of Arrows, but the band are assured enough to make it seem easy. There’s a depth of musicianship and experience on display that is so intensely rewarding, it makes you wonder where Great Grandpa were hiding it all this time. But it’s not so easy to make the art that you want to make, or live the life that you want to live, and these songs are about that struggle against predestination, against not getting stuck in a rut because you’re paralyzed by all the ways it might go wrong.
They acknowledge this struggle in complicated ways, like on opener “Dark Green Water,” where they sing about how “all aspiring comes with equal consequence, like some things we abuse and the joys they prevent.” But they also say it in ways that are a little easier to get a handle on. “Don’t let life take your hard work,” Menne sings on “Human Condition.” It’s a song about how difficult it is to figure out why we put in all of this effort into something as ephemeral as the 0-100 years we have on this earth. “I know you feel done but you’re still so young,” Menne continues, speaking to themselves as much as they are the listener. “Sometimes living is hard, hard work.” But hard work pays off, and Four Of Arrows is a testament to that.
Four Of Arrows is out 10/25 on Double Double Whammy. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Kanye West’s gospel-themed Jesus Is King (maaaaybe).
• Anna Meredith’s effervescent and complex FIBS.
• Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s elementally fuzzy Colorado.
• Teebs’ luscious and zen first new album in five years Annica.
• Mikal Cronin’s scuzzy and intense Seeker.
• Underworld’s conclusion to the year-long Drift Songs project.
• Future Islands frontman Samuel T. Herring and producer Kenny Segal’s team-up as Hemlock Ernst & Segal, Back At The House.
• Konradsen’s spindly and lovely Saints And Sebastian Stories.
• Alcest’s celestial Spiritual Instinct.
• Swans’ gloomy and hypnotic Leaving Meaning.
• Little Scream’s glittering and incisive Speed Queen.
• Amy O’s thoughtful and twangy Shell.
• Water From Your Eyes’ multifaceted and groovy Somebody Else’s Song.
• Cigarettes After Sex’s gauzy and languid Cry.
• Anna Of The North’s fantastically retro Dream Girl.
• Black Marble’s pinched and dancey Bigger Than Life.
• Sunn O)))’s drone experiment Pyroclasts.
• Van Morrison’s rambling Three Chords And The Truth.
• Queens Of The Stone Age’s musician pile-up Desert Sessions.
• King Princess’ sleek soft-rock debut, Cheap Queen.
• Brooke Candy’s bombastic Sexorcism.
• Steve Hauschildt latest solo sweep Nonlin.
• Dry Cleaning’s Boundary Road Snacks And Drinks EP.
• Spielbergs’ Running All The Way Home EP.
• Vamachara’s Hereafter EP.