Review Summary: If they do care, oh, they're not letting it show.
If 2013 is the "year of reunion albums", which it seems to have been, one of the most surprising was definitely the Dismemberment Plan's. After years of denying any re-involvement with music, the Plan began a small tour in 2011, and two years later announced a new album to general cautious optimism. The revolutionary, genre-less band best known for some of the best albums of the nineties went out on top, with the settled-but-not-boring Change
, an album which more than anything represented a marked maturation for them. Logically, any new album would be one for the fans who've stuck with them, since they're essentially a reunion act and probably not aiming for mainstream popularity at this point. Given that, not to mention their virtuoso instrumentalists, killer songwriting instincts, and lyrics so overwhelmingly excellent I could have reviewed this album entirely in quotes, it seemed like while The Dismemberment Plan may not live up to their catalogue, at least they couldn't release something bad, right?
Better start digging.
From a songwriting perspective, Uncanney Valley
is a more significant step down from its predecessors than I've seen in a long time. The electric, time-signature-warping riffs and hooks from the group's past are gone, neutered into awkward samples (“Invisible”), boring chord progressions (“Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer”), and feeble reproductions of their old funky dance-punk riffs. While it's impossible to say that the instrumentalists themselves are worse than before, the songs don't give them any opportunities to flex their muscles like "8 1/2 Minutes" and "The Other Side" did. The synths sound cheesy instead of giving off atmosphere. The songs that are alright are unimpressive and simple, like “Lookin'”, and pleasant-enough opener "No One's Saying Nothing", indicating that the Dismemberment Plan don't know how to write good, complex songs anymore. The music isn't unlistenable; in fact often it's fairly pleasant, but it's almost always uninteresting and never up to their standards. However, even great instrumentation wouldn't have been able cover up the most disappointing part of Uncanney Valley
: the lyrics.
The lyrics of Uncanney Valley
are so worthless that writing a paragraph on them feels like a waste of time. 1999's Emergency & I
was one of the most rich, lucid pieces of lyrical writing in the indie-rock canon. Trading normal songwriting sensibilities for what amounted to quick-fire poetry, it touched on a spectrum of themes and issues without ever edging into melodrama. It was an album that could have essays written about each song, and for the most part that's why it's lived on as an essential album despite its niche, cult appeal. The Travis Morrison of 1999 would find a lot to write about 2013. His obsession with technology masking emotions and pain, and his jittery fear of isolation and apocalypse have never been more relevant than now. The Travis Morrison of 2013 seems content to scribble off some clunky, obvious rhymes and unimaginative metaphors and call it a day. While sections like the bridge of “Mexico City Christmas”, referencing “God highlighting things he likes”, show shadows of the old creativity, these are never explored in anything but the simplest of terms. Lead single “Waiting” sounds like a lazy attempt at mom-rap overlaid on a bouncing but nondescript synth beat. The entire final track, framed as though it could become an anthemic live staple is so shockingly amateurish that it's hard to imagine that it was written by the same band that wrote “Back and Forth” or "The City". It's all so lazy, cheesy and predictable that it actually sounds like material Morrison would spew sarcastically on ...Is Terrified
. It boggles the mind that such a masterful lyricist could fall so far.
After listening to Uncanney Valley
, it's impossible to understand who this album could possibly be for. The shallowness and simplicity, coupled with the brushing away of every Plan trademark makes it unappealing to fans, but at the same time it isn't a pop album or a final attempt at radio play and fame. Uncanney Valley
is in every way a bunt-and-a-miss, playing it “safe” while dumbing down the Dismemberment Plan's music to the point of un-recognizability. It fails not only as a comeback album, but as an album in general.