Review Summary: Hi, honey! How's Boston?
Here’s an interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed recently; when I think about some of my all-time favorite albums, nine times out of ten the opener is one of the best songs on the tracklist. Barring albums with preludes or ambient intros, I’ll bet any reader of this review will notice something similar about their favorite records if they cycle through them in their imagination. First impressions are of the utmost importance, and how an artist begins their project is a make or break moment in the eyes of the listener. This is what makes “Tonight We Mean It” one of the ballsiest album openers of all time. No warning is given before the band starts all the way up at eleven and tears into one of the most frantic songs in their discography. If one hasn’t properly braced for impact, the jagged percussion and Travis Morrison’s thunderous refrain are enough to knock an unsuspecting observer completely backward.
It’s not the singular most impressive track here (though I’d certainly put it in my top five), but “Tonight We Mean It” is a microcosm of how and why The Dismemberment Plan’s second album works. Every strength of the group is shown in spades here. Jason Caddell’s guitar playing would never be quite this angular and aggressive on future records, with notable exceptions like the furious “8 ½ Minutes” or “I Love A Magician”. His tasteful use of dissonance and creative lead lines transform “Tonight We Mean It” from a run-of-the-mill banger into an IV drip of pure adrenaline. He takes it even further on tracks like “That’s Where The Party Started”, in which he manages to conjure a swarm of helicopters with his pedalboard, or the dizzying “Academy Award”, where he launches into riffs so otherworldly that vocalist Travis Morrison has no choice but to shout Caddell’s name at the top of his lungs.
Speaking of Morrison, his unconventional and powerful vocal delivery is at an all-time high on this record, and it’s extremely impressive that his stage presence can be felt even though I can’t see him. One of the main reasons The Dismemberment Plan are remembered so fondly is because of their unique personality, which Morrison is at the forefront of. As a lyricist, his metaphors and visuals exist either to construct an entire alternate reality, or to spin the incredibly mundane experience of his city lifestyle into something worth speaking on. For the former, there’s “Bra”, easily the most insane piece of music here, and therefore one of the best. This track is wordplay for wordplay’s sake, which is a joy to listen to because of how hilarious Morrison is. When was the last time you heard a charismatic frontman describe himself as “hot with malaria” or do his best impersonation of SpongeBob hitchhiking like the pioneers during a breakdown? For the latter, there’s the two major lyrical highlights of the record, and some of the best tracks of Morrison’s career. Let’s start with “Do The Standing Still”, one of the wittiest examples of songwriting I know of. No one has ever written a more entertaining song about their insecurity as a performer, and the idea of reframing the 6 or 7 bored kids at your show as buying into your new dance craze is genius. Then there’s the most recognizable cut on the record, “The Ice of Boston”. No other track puts Morrison quite as front-and-center as he is here, and he chews the scenery to perfection. It would take paragraph after paragraph to dissect every single brilliant line in this song, so I’d highly encourage you to check it out for yourself, even if it’s just for the moment where he mimics a phone call with his mother as the arrangement nears a fever pitch.
Behind every masterful moment on this album is the most underappreciated rhythm section of the last 30 years, bassist Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley. These two have an almost telepathic connection, and are directly responsible for the woozy time shifts and dynamic switches that make the album so arresting to listen to. When tasked with carrying large chunks of a song, they deliver gems like the funk of “This Is The Life”, and when asked to turn it up to 110%, we get songs like the complete aural assault of “Manipulate Me” that scorch the earth as they quickly fly overhead. “This Is The Life” would be my personal pick for the best song this record has to offer, largely because of how calculated and strong the transitions initiated by the rhythm section are. The second half of this song morphs it into a different beast entirely as Axelson and Easley pick up the tempo and toss in plenty of meter changes on the way to a riff that functions as the emotional apex of the entire record.
Unfortunately, this greatness is not sustained for the rest of the album’s runtime. After the stunning “This Is The Life” slowly fades away, the remaining tracks don’t quite measure up to the borderline flawless first half. The biggest offender has to be closer “Respect Is Due”, a 12-minute jog through chest-high mud that prevents an incredible album from doing what it needs to do most, ending on a high note. The album is strongest when the band decides to fully lean into its eccentricities, which is why “Respect Is Due” is such a baffling song to me. Not only is this the least weird song on the album, it’s also the song that the group decided to make three times as long as it needed to be, despite it not fitting in sonically with any other songs on the tracklist. Another weak late-album cut is “It’s So You”, where Morrison sounds genuinely bored during the verses, and the remainder of the band matches his lethargy and somehow becomes a Dismemberment Plan cover band, despite actually being The Dismemberment Plan.
“The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified” was the beginning of an absolutely stellar three-album run that redefined the possibilities of indie rock, and is a largely overlooked album in many respects. It has palpable energy, and the band gives it all they’ve got right out of the gate, which should hook any listener in. It doesn’t end on the strong footing it begins with, but for the majority of its runtime, “Is Terrified” is an essential record with performances for the ages and a memorable personality to boot.