Review Summary: It’s far from perfect but it’s fun.
Sitting behind my desk at work, morning coffee in hand and celebrating my fourth wedding anniversary with my wife (and also fellow Plan nut), I was ready to be blown away. As long as I had listened to The Dismemberment Plan, I had never had the privilege of buying any of their records on release day. I was introduced to them via my wife not long after Change was released and quickly absorbed every second of music I could from them. I was 17 then and their records provided a soundtrack for my life over the past 12 years. Emergency & I is still one of my all-time favorite albums, earning my rarely doled out “perfect” album ribbon. But being able to snag a new Plan album on release day was new territory and this was my most-anticipated record of the year.
Headphones on and ready to work while taking in this album for the first time, the simplistic guitar, funky bass and groovy drums were all there on the album’s opener “No One’s Saying Nothing.” Soon enough, Travis Morrison’s unique and easily-recognizable vocals were floating effortlessly on top of the music that always leaves plenty of breathing room for him to leave his mark. However, something was “off.” I couldn’t put my finger on it but the magic seemed lost. The lyrics were disappointing and didn’t seem nearly as introspectively poetic, cynical, or ingenious like the arrows-to-the-heart they provided in the past. The rhythm section that has been such a cornerstone for the band’s entire existence was tight as always, but not nearly as quirky. Where was the self-awareness or alienation from songs like “Spider in the Snow” or “The City”? Where were the cathartic interjections adding a glimmer of hope juxtaposed with otherwise bleak landscapes painted by Morrison’s poignant storytelling? I was used to their song moods and lyrics punching me in the gut and heart all at once in a way that made me want to scream “get out of my brain!” as if Travis was some sort of mind-reader privy to all of my secret insecurities, regrets, imperfections while also providing me motivation to take ownership of the things I had control over in my life.
During my initial listen, the songs “Waiting” and “Invisible” were the most familiar in terms of what I expected to hear in a post-Change Plan album and as such were my initial favorites. As a whole, the album really came off as much more straight-forward than I ever expected to hear from a band whose catalog to date was anything but predictable. The songs weren’t bad; they just weren’t meeting my expectations (a dreaded word to musicians). The musicianship as a whole was tight, they were clearly having fun, and it still had their core elements so why wasn’t I enjoying this?
But then something happened - not on my second, but on my 3rd listen. I removed my overly-critical and curmudgeonesque glasses and viewed the album without the air of music-snobbery that I will be the first to admit has impaired my ability to enjoy certain albums in my past. Suddenly on this third visit I found myself bobbing my head and tapping my foot along to the bouncy, up-tempo beats of songs like “Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer” and “White Collar White Trash.” The funky keyboards and electronics in songs like “Living In Song” or “Mexico City Christmas” started to remind me of some happy mash-up between Change-era Plan and LCD Soundsysytem and as a result couldn’t not have fun listening to them. Midway through my 3rd listen of “White Collar White Trash” I thought 'Could I really be starting to enjoy this album?' as if I wasn’t allowed to because it wasn’t what I “expected”.
When I stepped back and put things into perspective, I was listening to this album through the lens of Emergency & I. How fair is that? How well does any new album hold up on first listen to your coveted “perfect” records? The perfect storm of elements required to create so-called 10’s is so rare that even great bands are lucky to have lightning strike once, let alone twice. Yet, when a band does create work of classic proportions, it also becomes the white elephant for the rest of their career – not only for them but for fans like me who have a hard time listening to an album outside of the context of an artist’s previous work. I think that’s why we have such an easy time finding new bands that excite us versus enjoying new albums by bands we have listened to for a long time.
Would I have turned down another Emergency & I or Change? Not a chance. However, just 2 years ago I never would have imagined I would get another record period from one of my all-time favorite bands. Every album a band releases adds a new notch for comparison, making it simultaneously harder for a band to break new ground or keep fans happy who want more of the same. This compounds when you provide a 12-year gap for your previous work to cement its place in the minds and ears of music fans and critics. The expectations become monumental and you’ll never live up to most of them. So what do you do? You write a record that’s fun. A record that you enjoy writing. A record that you enjoy playing. A record that true Dismemberment Plan fans (even ones who have grown up and grown musically cynical) will enjoy listening to, whether it is on their first or fifteenth listen. It's far from perfect, but they chose the path of least resistance and most fun.