Looking back on the time these DC indie heroes swapped sarcasm for sincerity
I think the reason a certain dominating archetype of Dismemberment Plan fan won’t let go of a conventional trajectory because the band’s arc so perfectly mirrors his own.
Their exhilarating debut ! is largely pre-woke adolescent slapstick, from the pre-Columbine “I’m Going to Buy You a Gun” to the douche-a-rama “Onward, Fat Girl,” and even the enduring concert closer “OK, Jokes Over” hinges on the proto-incel couplet “If you’re such a victim, then go call the cops / You certainly looked good when you were on top.” (They left off their quite-fun debut single “Can We Be Mature?” though.)
Then came The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified, an underrated masterpiece of coiled, sarcastic rage that marked an evolution purely by directing some of its vitriol — this time for targets ranging from Gladys Knight to their own shy fans — at themselves. A bratty anti-brat song like “Academy Award” now co-existed with Travis Morrison drunkenly phoning his mom alone on New Years’ Eve.
By 1999 they were being praised for their unusually detailed empathy about dead romance, urban alienation and uninviting parties on the correctly-rated masterpiece Emergency & I, a/k/a the one everyone identified with. College guys who once, maybe even still, identified with the narrator of “Onward, Fat Girl” were now okay poking fun at their idiotic hormones on “Girl O’Clock,” examining their humanity itself via “What Do You Want Me to Say,” and finding more introspective ways to analyze their girl problems thanks to “The City,” all of which are barnburners, not a word you use to describe anything by tourmates and spiritual foils Death Cab for Cutie, who also didn’t utilize a sonic toolbox of jazz, hip-hop and D.C. hardcore.
The jokes were still there, dark as ever; contemporaneous B-side “Since You Died” (as in “we get along better since…”) culminated in “every time invisible laughter is in my ear, I can hardly keep my hands off myself.” They became the biggest stars they were ever gonna be, and as with most breakthroughs, went on to release their second-most-beloved album. The very title of Change mocked the alt-rock audience’s biggest fears, not least because so many of their fans were boys who once identified with the narrator of “Onward, Fat Girl.” But Change was the kind of album that audience accepted as digestible. They were mellowing out, too, why shouldn’t they appreciate an emphasis on moodier and less silly songwriting?
Travis Morrison never stopped telling jokes — “I’m an old testament type of guy / I like my coffee black and my parole denied” is right there in the lead cut — but they got drier. “I am a time bomb / And I only live in that one moment in which you die,” he sings drolly, and that’s on the single. Change is remarkably open emotionally, particularly about Morrison’s great subject of not knowing how he’s supposed to feel. Fans are mad for “The Face of the Earth,” inspired by Michael Jordan’ bewilderment after his girlfriend of mere months suddenly drowned, which is immediately followed by “Superpowers,” in which the titular ability seems more like the curse of numbness (“I’ve felt such unreal pain and not known what to do”). Then there’s a lot of emphasis on regaining one’s control over the important things: “I’d rather by happy than right this time,” “Don’t you forget this is my life and it’s gonna be good.” It shouldn’t be too weird that they broke up after Change, though the band was too spirited and too flatly excellent to not shore up a final tour for fans for two years after; the all-requests gig I caught in 2003, about three shows from their end, was probably the best I’ve ever seen in my life by anyone.
Which brings us to “Ellen and Ben,” a closer that tied their audience to their music more directly than they ever had or most artists ever do. Ellen and Ben were real-life concertgoers, and the song chronicles their coupling (“having sex again and again”), decoupling (“I heard they broke up loudly at a wedding”), and ultimate disappearance from in the D.C. music scene. When Morrison wraps things up, he declines to comment on his own denouement, just “hanging with my nephew and trying to keep my eyes on the prize.” But it’s clear he views something prescient about Ellen and Ben creeping up on him and his band, even if in 2001 he couldn’t tell whether it was good or bed. Musically, it’s a warmer song, with little synth-funk boogie breakdowns, than is his usual practice.
What happened to Travis Morrison was not further musical success. His indie-rock circuit became controlled by a site called Pitchfork Media, who gave his first solo album Travistan a 0.0 rating, which at the time meant indie stores wouldn’t even stock it. It was at least half-great. The follow-up, All Y’All, infused with R&B well ahead of the indie curve as was his métier (released the same year as Rilo Kiley’s equally soulful and unappreciated-in-its-time Under the Blacklight), was even better and also barely noticed.
AUDIO: The Dismemberment Plan “Ellen and Ben”
And even the Plan, despite well-received reunion tours from 2010 on, could not recover the goodwill for their excellent Uncanney Valley, his third and likely final salvo determined to show what a blast life was after maturity. Plan fans like to have fun. But a good chunk of them lacked the stomach for the dad jokes and homey melodies of the post-splenetic life. All three of these records combined classic Plan’s colorful energy bursts and studio panoply (All Y’All even had a pitched-down Travis rapping) with a more They Might Be Giants-derived strain of humor better suited to Morrison the husband and dad. Plenty of former fans should dig them if they tried to get over the idea that their old faves are supposed to sound like college glory forever. (Even Change, if you can find a Japanese edition, came with a 57-second bonus track called “BTW,” mislabeled as “B.T.A.,” that functions as kind of a wadded-up ball of the funky, frenetic old Plan sound chucked at their fans’ heads.)
The beauty with this band is, even for those of us that felt Change was thematically not our idea of a good time, it remains incredible and still-unmatched music. Amazing choruses still sprung up by surprise from impossible chord transitions on “Superpowers” and “Secret Curse” and once-wry, danceable postpunk found an intense jangle on “Time Bomb” and “Following Through.” Joe Easley remained the world’s greatest drummer flipping through the otherwise placid “The Other Side” like he was juggling knives, or patiently grounding the open jazz chords of “Come Home” and undergirding the hip-hop of “The Face of the Earth.” Only the still, interlude-like “Automatic” at the center of the thing feels like a bummer, and it serves a haunting purpose as the calm of the storm, albeit one that was a lot less explosive.
Maybe the time bomb felt it never lived at all, and that key word was “time.” So it changed.
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