Review Summary: When I say 'what the,' you say 'hell.' What the!
In a stunning display of how to alienate fans and obliterate expectations, Travis Morrison kicks off Uncanney Valley
with the lyric “Press the spacebar enough, coCAINE comes out! I really LIKE this computer!” From there, the facepalms never let up, as Morrison dad-jokes his way through the first album in twelve years from seminal white nerds The Dismemberment Plan. This might be a tough pill to swallow for old fans; both Emergency and I
(1999) and Change
(2001) nailed early-twenties ennui in such an insightful, poetic way that hearing the couplet “I am not an inhibited man!/ try to keep it in my pants when I can!” from the same band is a heartfu
ck of Raditude
proportions. It may be unfair to hold new material from a band against its masterpieces past, but Emergency and I
are to Uncanney Valley
what On the Road
and Dharma Bums
would be to a Kerouac book of knock-knock jokes. Though the work may not necessarily be bad in and of itself, the dramatic shift in tone and immense simplification of form would be jarring enough to prompt bewilderment before anything else, and with proof of life-changing mastery looming so conspicuously in hindsight, it had better have some fucking
hilarious knock-knock jokes.
The lyrics of Uncanney Valley
are stretched metaphors and tenuous rhymes delivered with ham-fisted obviousness, like terrible puns from a guy who self identifies as “goofy” and punctuates each joke he thinks of with a loud “he-hey!” The lyric from “No One’s Saying Nothing” quoted above is but one of the track’s almost-exclusively jaw-dropping lines, others being “I’m just a fat man on druUugs, drowning in huUugs” and “Sit out on the porch, it’s nicer than you thiIink/have yourself a coffee, have yourself a thiIink.” Morrison doesn’t get too much better from there, as nearly every track features at least one line worth burying your head in your hands over, including “Thought I’d end up in midtown a winner/now I’m bitin’ my nails and I’m callin it dinner” from “Invisible” and every single word of “White Collar White Trash.” These are-you-fuck
ing-serious couplets create a bizarre effect; they’re sung so consistently and with such unabashed enthusiasm that the cringes they induce begin to feel like the intended effect of the album, though to what end they’re supposed to lead to is tricky to decipher.
It’s as if there’s a joke surrounding Uncanney Valley
, but who’s telling it isn’t entirely clear. Is Morrison taking the piss, and if so, out of what? He said in his Pitchfork interview that on Emergency and I
, the boys in the Dismemberment Plan sounded like “very nervous young men.” Uncanney Valley
is anything but nervous sounding, all free-wheeling and comfortable, and in fact seems to needle the very self-serious nervousness that permeates the type of narrators that populated songs like “A Life of Possibilities” and “Ellen and Ben.” Those folks were nervous loners who looked at togetherness and inclusivity with an air of distrust and self-loathing. The protagonists of Uncanney Valley
are middle-aged buds having a transparently good time spewing some silly lyrics and grooving hard over hot bass lines and syncopated drum patterns. Who’s to say which perspective is the wiser?
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest the latter. Not in the lyrics, lord knows, but in the spirit of the thing. Uncanney Valley
truly doesn’t suck, despite its best efforts to come off like it does to a certain sensibility. “Waiting” has already proved a polarizing single derided for its syllable-smushing and narrative of a guy giving a mild fuck
-you to an ex fling, but it is
super-catchy and fun to listen to, if a bit twee. Same with much of Uncanney Valley
; replace the guitar leads with piano licks and it’s not too far off from a good Ben Folds record. There’ve been whispers that it’s musically bland compared to the Plan’s previous work, and while it’s true that it takes less work to wrap your ear around Valley
, “bland” isn’t the right word for what amounts to a band giving in to its considerable ear for pop songwriting. This is verse-chorus-verse as pleasantly intuitive as it comes, thematically light yet with enough room for the musicians to show their considerable skill. This is a band channeling its talent into pure positive vibes, while also creating a sense that those who don’t go with them are the ones with the problem.
One walks away from Uncanney Valley
with a hefty chunk of it lodged in the brain, to be revisited as “that song begrudgingly stuck in your head” for weeks to come. Morrison’s “I can be the (something) you can be the (something else)” series of lines in “Let’s Just Go to the Dogs Tonight” might be terrible on paper but either their naïve simplicity or sing-song-y delivery make them difficult to deny eventually. This is the most aggravating thing about Uncanney Valley
: it’s an album worth loving in spite of itself. The band didn’t even attempt to acknowledge their legacy and it’s arguable that they worked aggressively to pull the rug out from underneath it, and yet the music is still kind of really good. It’s catchy and stupid and fun and terrible and proud of being all those things. This is a record with no aspirations to poetry or wallowing. It wants only to get the crowd involved, even going so far as to include its very own fuck
ing ridiculous chant of “When I say what the, you say hell! What the! HELL! What the! HELL!” that will either play really well or really awkwardly live, depending on who shows up. Those who’d disown Uncanney Valley
for its signal that The Dismemberment Plan have gone to the dogs would make the moment uncomfortable, but those with them for the good vibes they want to create, warts and all (and oh my god, the warts!), could have a lot of fun connecting to a band that seems to have stopped doing sadness. Which show would you rather be at?