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The Dismemberment Plan
Uncanney Valley Nick Southall , October 30th, 2013 05:21

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In the interest of preserving the relationship between writer and reader I feel I should lay open my relationship with this band and their new record. I’m a fan of The Dismemberment Plan, and have been for years. A decade and more ago, when they were at the peak of their powers and I was in my early 20s, I loved them intensely. Songs such as 'The Ice Of Boston' and 'The City' captured something important about being that post-adolescent void and feeling cast adrift in an adult world that you don’t quite understand, aware that you’re making stupid mistakes and bad decisions, but somehow powerless to prevent yourself anyway.

The terrific, aimless angst that comes from not knowing who you are, from feeling like a glimmer of dust in the infinite quintessence of a metropolis you’ve parachuted into by mistake, the unctuous terror that you might die alone in bed because you don’t know what love or life is or where to find either… at the time, they feel insurmountable, all-consuming, and The Dismemberment Plan, goofy, punky, ridiculous and awkward as they were, somehow managed to encapsulate that entire feeling. I was 3,000 miles away, far away from any metropolis, but I felt it intensely.

But that was more than a decade ago, and I’m now in my mid-30s; I still don’t understand the adult world, but I care less about not understanding it. The things that worried me, the things that fascinated me, and the things that concerned me when I was 22 or 23 are now a distant memory that feel like a part of another life altogether, for the most part. I barely listen to ‘rock’ music anymore, let alone angsty, punky, jumbled missives from dorky American bands.

To talk about the actual music for a second; you’d be excused for not knowing what The Dismemberment Plan sound like, as they last released an album in 2001 and were never a big deal on this side of the Atlantic anyway. You can queue them up to stream or download and find out for yourself, but, and forgive me for jamming together reductive touchpoints, to my ears they sound like Fugazi playing a Talking Heads song, or Hüsker Dü trying to do Prince, or Gang of Four in Studio 54. Their rhythm section was incredible; lithe and attention seeking. The guitarist fired out juddering, distracted riffs and freaky, emotive textures with equal aplomb. All of them seemed to do stupid things with synths, at a time when synths were sinful. The singer didn’t sing so much as he opened his mouth and let every thought he’d ever had tumble out at once, his lyrics a seldom-repeating mélange of super-specific, hyper-ironic, utterly impassioned observances and insecurities and confessions about phone-calls from his mum and being beaten up and being in a band and playing shows that no one dances at. Half the time they were irritating, and the other half of the time they were inspired.

In 2003, just as people were cottoning on to indie bands who were acclaimed on the internet, or so it seemed, The Dismemberment Plan decided being a band wasn’t fun anymore, and they stopped. After a savaged-by-the-press solo album, Travis, the singer, became a web developer. Eric, the bassist, became an English teacher. In 2007 they played a benefit concert for a friend’s son, but that seemed like a blip in the band’s otherwise non-existent afterlife.

But then circumstances and desires and memories got them back together, and last year they played a handful of shows. Always an energetic, gawky band when playing live, they enjoyed performing again as much as their audiences, and found themselves writing new songs during rehearsals, because that’s what they’d always done, and after a while they decided to record them. Uncanney Valley (that’s a deliberate typo) is made up of those songs. But is it any good?

'No One’s Saying Nothing' and 'Waiting' start the album in a blur of goofy, hook-laden good humour, the former kicking proceedings off with what sounds like sleigh bells. 'Waiting' in particular, with its kooky, overly forced rhyme scheme, feels lightweight and trite, almost veering into Barenaked Ladies territory. It’s easy to forget that The Dismemberment Plan were always goofy and weird and uncool in a way that post 'Losing My Edge' hipster bands seldom seem to be. It’s the same goofiness that compels them to leave that stupid typo in the album title.

The Dismemberment Plan are, obviously, a different band now to the one they were a dozen and more years ago. Drums and bass are nowhere near as obnoxious in the mix as they used to be in; part of me feels like this is a massive shame, as the extravagance of their rhythm section was a defining part of the band’s character and appeal. It’s not quite lost here – they can clearly still play – but it’s not as important as it used to be to the DNA of their music.

'Invisible' is the first time the slightly oppressive mood that dominated some of Emergency & I and much of Change makes itself felt, but it’s a different kind of insecurity and angst that informs that mood. This is obvious, but it’s almost confusing; it’s easy to think that when a band splits up, their essence is preserved in aspic so that any future reformation could or should just carry straight on from exactly where they left off. But that’s not the case; each band member has had a decade of life since their last album, and every experience they’ve had must of course feed into what the band is now.

So instead of the psychosexual, deranged romance and confusion of their early days, we get the slightly overwrought sentimentality of 'Lookin’', which might be the album’s centrepiece, and is a song about the kind of relaxed, calm, rewarding love one experiences in a committed and wholesome relationship in your 30s. Given that this is where the band are now, that’s entirely appropriate, but I’m not entirely convinced that it makes for the most memorable pop music. It’s nice, but it doesn’t feel essential.

'Mexico City Christmas' has some of the neurosis and frenzy of 'Memory Machine' from Emergency & I, but pared down a notch. 'Go And Get It' is propulsive and built around an infectious, shoutable melody, with wailing keyboard oscillations and freaky guitar fills buoying an energetic shared chorus; it should unite a room amazingly when played live. 'Let’s Just Go To The Dogs Tonight' feels like an exercise in showing that they can still end an album with a winsome, emotive pseudo-funk workout the way they used to, call-and-response vocals springing a surprise finale, but it doesn’t quite take me where earlier closers did.

Years ago the critic Robert Christgau described The Dismemberment Plan as “skilled at transforming doubt into music”. They were. They were amazing at it. They’re still really good, and Uncanney Valley is an enjoyable and accomplished record that I really like, but I’ll almost certainly never care about any of these songs the way I care about 'The Face Of The Earth' or 'The Ice Of Boston' or 'What Do You Want Me To Say', songs I still feel that desperate sense of importance in that can and does run through your cultural attachments in your early-20s. That’s OK. Because it means they’re touring, and I can go and see them, and relive my early 20s again.

tdc
Oct 30, 2013 1:34pm

Thanks for this review - I've been thinking about this band a lot lately, and I think you've touched on some good stuff here, particularly this:

"It’s easy to forget that The Dismemberment Plan were always goofy and weird and uncool in a way that post 'Losing My Edge' hipster bands seldom seem to be."

Right on the money, and I think this is really at the heart of people's enduring goodwill towards this band, even if it means they let a few bad ideas slip out with the good ones. Nobody seems to be upset with them for making a reunion album that's kind of inessential, because it obviously came from a spontaneous and un-forced place, and because the songs are still pretty good. (They sound better live, too, the shows I saw this year and last were killer.)

Emergency & I wasn't just a great album, it was one of the last great American rock albums from a mold that doesn't really exist anymore, because nobody's putting all their cards on the table in the same way. These days, bands capable of serious emotional reflection make serious, somber albums; and bands with energy and funky rhythm sections make wink-and-a-nod dance pop. Either way, everybody stays cool by seeming like they've kept something hidden. The Plan put everything on the line at once, which probably made them irritating to some people, but also made them loveable in a way that bands today seldom are.

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