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Uncanney Valley – The Dismemberment Plan – album review

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One of the best reasons to attend a Dismemberment Plan show during the band’s 2011 reunion tour occurred seconds before the second chorus to “You Are Invited” — a delirious moment of anticipation when hundreds of giddy concert-goers realized the song’s promise was about to come true. Because as singer Travis Morrison belted out the song’s three-word title, a crowd of outcasts, high school nerds (past and present), and the emotionally awkward sang along in unison, madly rejoicing the unexpected return of the poet laureates of social anxiety. The fans’ very presence at these shows, often spent on stage with the band, confirmed that shared loneliness could in fact be transformed into a sense of belonging. For at least one night, we all were invited.

To at least a subset of young adults in the late 90′s, the Dismemberment Plan’s inexplicable fusion of indie rock, post-hardcore, funk, and dance punk came to personify their turn-of-the-millennium generation’s messy tangle of phobias, yearnings and ADD impulses. More than just a few twenty-somethings had breathed in the fumes from Morrison’s exhales on Emergency & I highlight “The City”: “Sometimes I stand on my roof at night/ And watch, as something seems to happen somewhere else/ I feel like the breeze will pick me up and carry me away” and felt oddly comforted.

These same kids-turned-grown-ups might be encouraged by Uncanney Valley, the D-Plan’s first album in over ten years, and the way it seems to lift a weight off of the Washington D.C. quartet’s shoulders — if only the feat didn’t feel so terribly forced. It turns out that the age-old equation — sadness shared is halved and happiness shared is doubled — only adds up when there’s a depth and purpose to your elation. On Uncanney Valley, the Dismemberment Plan sound upbeat and loose, but their songs display a disconcerting lack of edginess, wit, and staying power that made the band so incisive at its peak. Those unlikely anthems of displacement and isolation (which ironically brought people together) have been traded in for a formula that feels insipid, aimless, and, worst of all, disheartening.

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True to its namesake, Uncanney Valley looks and sounds like a Dismemberment Plan album but falls just short enough in so many regards that the results become truly disturbing. On opener “No One’s Saying Nothing,” Morrison’s and Jason Caddell’s spiky guitars and synth lines intertwine and crash in full force, while Eric Axelson and Joe Easley’s muscular rhythm section still turns on a dime during crowd-pleasers “Go and Get It” and “Let’s Just Go to the Dogs Tonight.”  But the album is plagued by a dearth of original hooks and song structures, far too few tempo changes, and an over reliance on major chords that pulls these songs away from the sweet spot of tense dynamism the D-Plan once hit with regularity.  “Lookin’” is perhaps the most paint-by-numbers track the band has ever written, not just in its banal, pop chorus but in Morrison’s mawkish, doe-eyed proclamation “(Your) look is eternal and it’s everlasting and it always blows me away.” If you didn’t think the D-Plan could do a sappy love song….well, neither did I, and we’re both painfully wrong.

Morrison’s mysterious, fragmented lyrics on Emergency & I and Change seemed like scraps of torn-up diary pages that, when reassembled by repeated listens, revealed subtle, emotional gradations and a brilliant, multifaceted narrative. But the pieces of Uncanney Valley feel mostly like gibberish. “I’m like a fat nun on drugs/ Drowning in hugs” Morrison raps, reveling in an inside joke so obscure it’s practically dumbfounding. The D-Plan’s cerebral funk and potent sense of humor have always made them seem like the smartest kids in the room, but Morrison misses the mark badly and often on Uncanney Valley, delivering shout-outs to Madonna’s artwork collection, cocaine-dispensing computers, and the regrettable line “I am not an inhibited man/ I try to keep it in my pants when I can.” The metaphors, once a strong point of Morrison lyrical arsenal, range from blase’ (“I can be the sugar, and you can be the cream”) to inexplicable (“I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed/ I try to get smart, and I get dumber instead.”) Indeed.

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“Invisible” is about as close as the Dismemberment Plan gets to past excellence, with a ghostly violin loop, bludgeoning bass riff, and one of Morrison’s catchier (albeit more uninteresting) choruses. “Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer” briefly ventures into intriguing territory with Morrison’s closing remark: “When they finally lay my coat and creaky bones to rest/ I hope I’m not a mystery to those who knew me best,” but that moment of reflection quickly fades beneath the song’s mindless, grating chorus. The D-Plan are such accomplished musicians that even their most sloppily written songs sound air-tight, but too many of these songs feel horribly rushed, as evidenced by the poor lyrics and commonplace melodies. For a band whose reputation was build on complexity, outright cleverness, and the resistance of instant gratification, Uncanney Valley feels like a cruel surrender.

In light of the superb quality of the band’s last two albums, the disappointment surrounding Uncanney Valley is especially epic — like finding out that Emergency and I’s “8 1/2 minutes” was all just a false alarm or that Change’s dysfunctional divorcees Ellen and Ben reconciled and lived happily ever after.  Some things are better left fucked-up. If that sounds heartless and masochistic, recall the legendary question asked by writer Nick Hornby in High Fidelity: “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”  The answer matters less than the astute observation that music and melancholy go hand in hand. The Dismemberment Plan may have outgrown the sadness of their youth, but they needn’t have abandoned the urge to make the type of great art they had once suffered for. Don’t confuse Uncanney Valley’s good cheer with contentment — it’s the sound of complacency.

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