The vinyl reissuing of the Dismemberment Plan’s landmark 1999 album Emergency & I and the group’s subsequent reunion shows should go a long way toward remedying a curious oversight — how one of best indie bands of the last 15 years has also managed to remain one of the least known. When you think of highly regarded indie artists of the late 90’s, names like Modest Mouse, Built To Spill, Wilco, and Yo La Tengo come to mind, all bands whose end-of-century albums (among the last of their kind to not be downloaded or sold digitally as a matter of course) became the brick and mortar of the today’s indie superhighway. Their best records are considered modern classics, and as indie music has evolved into the cultural touchstone and commercial brand it is today, each of these artists has become a respected elder, a living legend of sorts. You’ll be hard pressed to find a disparaging word written about any of the albums they released between 1997 and 2000.
I’m still astonished that Emergency & I isn’t immediately considered one of these classics, but I guess I shouldn’t be. The Dismemberment Plan were less guitar-driven, more difficult to appreciate upon first listen, and at times just plain weirder than their peers. They also broke up in 2003, just one year before indie music exploded with the Shins going global on Garden State, “Float On” hitting #1 on the modern rock charts, and The O.C. soundtrack becoming the most unlikely launching pad for new bands. Above all, Emergency and I is a juggernaut of an album not so much for of its influence as its prescience. It’s mind-boggling intersection of styles (rock, punk, pop, funk, dance, and hardcore) predicted the annexation of more popular musical genres into the indie fold in the 2000’s, and a decade later, the album still sounds timeless —- not in a referential way but in a way that feels distinctly alien — like something created a couple of years into the future.
Fact is, most people wouldn’t bat an eyelash if you told them that Emergency and I wasn’t a reissue but a brand new album. Some records age well, but this one somehow seems fresher in 2011. So it makes complete sense to examine the album with a fresh eye, in the hope that new listeners might find a gem that they had missed. Are the D-plan the greatest band you’ve never heard? It’s certainly possible. People who like this Washington D.C. quartet really like them, often with an attachment that borders on fanaticism. To be honest, if you’re still reading this, odds are you’re already one of the diehards. But if you aren’t yet a believer, please stay awhile, read on a bit. While I can guarantee that many of you won’t understand what all the fuss is about (for the longest time I didn’t), I can also promise that some of you will most certainly fall in love.
When describing the Dismemberment Plan’s eclectic sound, it makes sense to start with frontman Travis Morrison whose vocal style is an unorthodox blend of talking and singing that owes as much to rap as it does to rock. During the course of a single song, he’ll shift from deadpan spoken word to Prince-like falsetto to a demonic punk screech like a race car driver ripping through gears. In terms of acquired tastes, his voice is up there with black coffee and scotch; some of you are just bound not to like it.
But give it time. Because it’s the perfectly expressive vehicle for the chaotic poetry that bursts like crazy, cock-eyed transmissions from Morrison’s brain. He’s an exceptional lyricist who lays visually-striking, personal observations on top of universal themes as a way to tap into the emotional payoffs buried in familiar, everyday situations — failing to remember someone’s name, staring out over a city from a lonely rooftop, going to a party where you don’t feel welcome. One of the greatest pleasures of Emergency & I is grasping the intelligence and significance of Morrison’s lyrics, which can be hard to make out at first but over time become part of the album’s unassailable core.
Musically, the album echoes Morrison’s lyrical depth and expressiveness. Most of the songs are in played in minor keys, have clever arrangements, and contain unpredictable chord changes. Bass player Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley have always been the group’s strongest weapons, but on Emergency & I it becomes immediately obvious that they’re one of the best batteries in all of indie rock. The rhythmic backbone is a highlight on nearly every track; the duo’s playing breakneck, fluid, forceful, and ridiculously tight. Jason Caddell’s wiry guitar lines often serve as a melodic counterpoint, accentuating the songs with color and dimension. When the rare power chord does peek out, it shines brilliantly, such as “A Life of Possibilities’” final stanza, the chorus to “What Do You Want Me To Say,” and “You Are Invited’s” spine-tingling climax.
And then there’s the keyboards: at some point during the making of Emergency & I, the D-Plan discovered how make them a fantastic centerpiece. From the monster-sounding Korg-like squelches on “A Life of Possibilities” to the sparse, quirky programmable beats that build up the tension in “You Are Invited”, Emergency and I is loaded with synthesizers — sometimes providing the melody, sometimes the bass, and other times just blaring out like frantic sirens. All told, there exists a wonderful balance between conventional rock instrumentation and more experimental sounds throughout the album, giving Emergency & I a contemporary, innovative bent.
Like most great albums, there’s a splendid rise and fall to the track sequencing. The more traditional, pop-sounding songs (“What Do Want Me to Say,” “You Are Invited”) are evenly distributed throughout more pensive numbers (“Spider In the Snow” and “The Jitters”) and tracks that sound manic with energy (“I Love A Magician,” “Girl O’Clock”), while album opener “A Life of Possibilities” and closer “Back and Forth” are towering bookends. Aptly named “Gyroscope” teeters to the point of defying gravity, the time signature staggering along at either 7/8, 15/8 or 4/4 with an odd accent on the last note of the measure; I’m really not sure. It feels completely unsettling, like a heart skipping a beat, but the imbalance makes the steady 4/4 thump and major chord intro of the “The City” that immediately follows seem like reassuring bedrock. At one point Morrison wonders: “How can a body move the speed of light/And still be in such a rut?” and you can feel his distress. Throughout Emergency & I there’s a constant feeling of adjustment and redirection that keeps you on your toes, whether from sheer nervousness or the urge to dance uncontrollably.
A central theme runs through the record — the tug of war between connectedness and estrangement from society, friends, and ultimately oneself. “I lost my membership card to the human race” Morrison admits plainly, and you get the sense that the whole album is his attempt to find it again. He admits to having no memories of his friends, the nagging feeling that “something seems to happen somewhere else,” and the desire to live forever, but only if “they find a way to cure the longing/the distant panic.” There are suggestions of painful mistakes made with the opposite sex: the girlfriend who’s left him in “The City,” the self-conscious party girl with the broken heart in “Gyroscope,” the ex who forgives him with a glazed over smile in “You Are Invited.” On “Girl O’Clock” Morrison captures the angst of being lonely and out of a relationship in your 20’s: “If I don’t have sex by the weekend/I think I’m going to die/If I don’t have a nervous breakdown by the end of the week/ I’m going to be very surprised.” This is, ironically, stuttered over a bed of sexy, spastic funk, a disco bass line, and sped-up reggae guitar riffing that’s designed to keep the party hopping.
On “The Jitters,” guitars growl faintly and a plodding bass line spells out the slow, sinking feeling of alienation that sounds like a desperate, weary response to Radiohead’s “The Bends.” Whereas Thom Yorke, when faced with the realization that he had no friends, ultimately arrived at a desire to “live, breathe, (and) be part of the human race”, Morrison spirals further downward into isolation and depression: “I realized my friends’ true intentions/ Cut all ties/I’ve been doing ten thousand push-ups a day.” He sounds almost ready to combust. It’s scary.
But there are moments of hope as well. On “8 ½ minutes” when faced with the impending nuclear Armageddon, Morrison concedes that there’s cruelty and selfishness in society, but also love and forgiveness. “Back and Forth” is a triumphant finale in which Morrison proclaims he’s still “in search of the moment between the seconds where everything is just fine” and that together, we will “shrug away what we can’t bear.” On some level, the Dismemberment Plan’s very existence validates our daily struggle to stay afloat. By sharing their feelings of alienation, the band’s fans are among the tightest knit bunch you’ll ever see, as evidenced by the “can you believe we’re all here?” giddiness witnessed at the band’s reunion shows. It’s hard to think of a more communally cathartic moment than being in the audience seconds before the explosive climax of “You Are Invited,” the entire crowd like a cocked cross bolt poised to be fired upward in delirious joy. By end of these shows, a hundred fans surround Morrison on stage , swaying, bouncing and singing every word in raucous celebration. You see, in the end, in spite of the discomfort and disaffection, it’s important to remember that we are invited — all of us.
Everyone has albums that they reserve for special occasions only — In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Funeral, Joy Division’s Closer. They’re not casual listens because they tap so unfailingly into core emotions that experiencing them start to finish can be an exhausting affair. I recall a fan of OK Computer saying online that, for years, he only listened to the album in airports to keep it “safe and sacred” for him. Emergency & I is this kind of record — so many who love it have turned to it in times of crisis.
Perhaps it’s because buried in the aural firebombs, convulsing punk riffs and Morrison’s lyrical free-associations are a series of stark truths to which we can all relate. “So in the end, whatever, we die, we dissolve/Equations unbalanced, riddles unsolved/And we were never connected or involved.” “Happiness is such hard work/And it gets harder every day.” “There are times I don’t know you at all.” These are realizations on isolation, disappointment, and loss that are inherent to the human condition. Who hasn’t thought any or all of these things? They permit us, beautifully, to share in and paradoxically overcome our own loneliness.
When it was first released in 1999, Emergency & I felt like a niche album written by kids in their 20’s for kids in their 20’s, but a decade later, it’s become much more than that. Because really, all that shit that young adults experience so acutely— the burden of failed relationships, the existential sense of aloneness, and the nagging uncertainty over your purpose in life (and life’s purpose for that matter) — never really goes away in middle age, or old age, or any age. You still feel the same feelings and ask the same questions, but you’re just a little wearier and have a few more responsibilities, so it’s hard to be as passionate about it. You’ve sunk a little deeper into life’s cushion, more or less.
Music like this still hits home because, no matter how old you are, life will always be filled with emergencies and catastrophes — in case you hadn’t noticed, the world is not a safer place to live now than it was in 1999. This record speaks loudly to that. It agitates you, regenerates you, demands that you scrutinize yourself. It’s physically visceral yet unapologetically cerebral. Frankly, there’s not much else I can really ask of music.
So, at the risk of sounding trite, if the world’s nukes were to be launched today, here’s what I would do in my last 8 ½ minutes. I’d hold my wife and daughter close and tell them I love them. I’d pick up the phone and make a couple of long overdue amends, the kind of big ones you always put off to another day because you just don’t have the time. And in the moments left over, I’d listen to a few last bars of the music that I really love, stuff like Emergency & I, over an utterly final glass of beer. Seriously, that’s what I would do. And something tells me I wouldn’t be, or feel, alone.