There will never be another Dismemberment Plan, which is why it’s so exciting that there will be another Dismemberment Plan album. Two years of slowly building momentum — a reissue, a tour, a wealth of new material — culminated in frontman Travis Morrison’s confirmation via Twitter last month that a new LP is almost complete. Like Morrison, I’ve been “a little amped” since then. That feeling only escalated this week when the band published an elaborate lyrics and YouTube archive on its website, functioning as a behemoth reminder of the Plan’s mind-bending powers. Obviously, the music landscape is a far cry from what it was in 2001, when these guys last released a full-length album together. But it would be difficult for evolution to leave this band behind. Even in its heyday, the Plan stuck out, a peculiar and uniquely endearing entity shaped by its city and the irrepressible muse of the man at the microphone.
Born into the ironic ’90s, the Plan was earnest almost to a fault. Credit the influence of the D.C. punk scene, perhaps; this is the city where hardcore bands first attracted the dreaded “emo” tag, where Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto made wearing your heart on your sleeve a way of life. But whereas those guys were stern, brooding, even moralizing, Morrison grinned like a gleeful schoolboy on stage. A sensitive goofball and occasional smartass who was absolutely not afraid to be himself, he made keeping it real seem fun and inviting. Even his most personalized lyrics (e.g., “From the age of 20 to 22 I had five friends, none of whose names I can recall”) welcomed you into his quarter-life crisis on your own terms. The Plan’s music seemed to say, “Yeah, we’re a bunch of insecure navel-gazers, but so are you. Let’s dance!”
It was ahead of its time in that way. By the time the Plan played its final show in September 2003, dance-punk was a fully formed movement. “Losing My Edge” and “House Of Jealous Lovers” had been “making the indie kids dance” for a solid year, and respectable music critics were using words like “electroclash” and “Fischerspooner.” That couldn’t have been further from the truth when the Plan taunted cross-armed hipsters with “Do The Standing Still” in 1997. Although that song came out at the height of the big beat craze that had Prodigy and Chemical Brothers filling stadiums, it was long before indie rock tore down its self-imposed iron(ic) curtain and freely intermingled with mainstream pop music, a restriction Morrison never paid any mind. Most of the underground was swaying to guitar slackers like Pavement and Built To Spill, scratching chins to brainy post-rock from Tortoise and Mogwai or crying along to OK Computer and Either/Or. Morrison probably had those sorts of images in mind when he was calling out “a hundred million kids all dancing in suspended animation.”
In stark contrast, Plan concerts were parties. It’s easy to see the Plan’s signature sound as a direct descendant of Fugazi’s signature rhythm bomb, Repeater, but spiritually, at least, they cribbed just as much from Go-go, the indigenous strain of funk that ruled D.C. in the ’60s and ’70s. Bassist Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley made dance-floor manna out of contorted time signatures and stop-start herks and jerks. They approached “difficult” music in a playful way — a means to spazz out rather than an academic exercise, always grounded in pop appeal thanks to Jason Caddell’s guitar and keyboard melodies. Eventually, you don’t even notice the unusual turns of a song like “Gyroscope,” you just get lost in the propulsive pace and Morrison’s masterful storytelling.
The appeal was enough to attract an Ohio kid like me to Lexington, Pittsburgh, and D.C. (three times!) in the Plan’s final year of existence, plus two trips to Cleveland. After discovering the band in 2002 at the tail end of my senior year of high school, I became a full-fledged Plan fanatic, a status I maintain to this day. And while it’s almost painful to omit certain classic tracks from this list, I think these 10 do justice to the Dismemberment Plan’s formidable legacy. Offer your competing opinions in the comments.
10. “The Face Of The Earth” from Change (2001)
The Plan’s fourth album presented a slightly smoothed-out and calmed-down take on its signature sound. (Call it “mature” if you like.) Exhibit A is “The Face Of The Earth,” which builds from a jittery, melancholic groove into a charging, chiming climax that hints at how much the Plan was hanging out with Death Cab at the time. Lyrically, it’s a Louie episode distilled into song, a fantastical tale about a girlfriend who, upon kissing the narrator, is blown into the stratosphere, never to be seen again: “There wasn’t any wind, no noise, no nothing / Just a body jerked skyward, limbs flailing like an unloved marionette.”
9. “OK Jokes Over” from ! (1995)
Frankly, the studio version of this song is terrible. Sonically, it might as well be a live bootleg. Morrison’s voice is gratingly off-key, and his lyrics belie the genius he would later spout with regularity. Good thing the band kept “OK Jokes Over” around, though, because it became a signature closing number over the years, a chance to stretch out and let Morrison pay tribute to whatever pop song was getting burn in his stereo at the time, which by the 2011 reunion tour ranged from the National’s “Afraid Of Everyone” to Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair.”
8. “A Life Of Possibilities” from Emergency & I (1999)
The Dismemberment Plan knows how to make an entrance. “Tonight We Mean It” introduces …Is Terrified as the quartet’s most spasmodic set, while “Sentimental Man” frames Change as the slow sigh into middle age. Those are great songs, but “A Life Of Possibilities” is the gold standard of D-Plan album openers. When you press play on Emergency & I, you’re greeted by falsetto jabs, gurgling synths, and gleaming guitars weaving harmonies that would do Television proud, and you instantly realize you’re stepping into something momentous. This is an album of possibilities.
7. “Academy Award” from The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified (1997)
The zany streak that runs through Plan’s discography reached its zenith on …Is Terrified, and nothing better exemplifies it than this tweaked-out tangle of guitar, bass, drums, and berserk vocal flailing. Morrison turns a blistering spotlight on a drama queen’s moans and groans, as if to say, “You want attention? You got it.” Good luck holding back your fist-pump when Morrison sings, “And the academy award for ridiculous over-acting goes to YOU! So get on up there and give us a speech!”
6. “Gyroscope” from Emergency & I (1999)
It’s hard to believe they packed this much into two and a half minutes. As one of the Plan’s quirkiest rhythms and some of its catchiest hooks chaotically converge, Morrison frantically spins stories about frantically spinning people trying to keep their broken hearts from falling apart. The end result sounds as busy as the characters staving off consequences. It’s a rollercoaster of a song, but it never goes off the rails.
5. “Time Bomb” from Change (2001)
Probably the most straightforward rock song in this band’s oeuvre, “Time Bomb” is also one of its darkest. Morrison describes himself as a time bomb, a poison, a tripwire, a tarpit, a fault line, and a lost soul. It’s about plotting revenge, and there’s no happy ending, just somebody (everybody?) yelling “Why?” We’ve all wanted to lash out at somebody that hurt us; here, Morrison gives voice to that curdling resentment as a means to flush it out. It’s a bleak song, but belting it out is a lot healthier than punching somebody in the face.
4. “You Are Invited” from Emergency & I (2001)
This sneaky little parable about a magic all-access party invitation is my go-to mixtape pick when I’m trying to hook somebody on the Plan. Although it’s minimal in a way the band rarely attempted — mostly a pre-programmed keyboard drumbeat and Morrison’s vocals until the song explodes halfway through — “You Are Invited” functions as arguably the best introduction to the Plan, or at least the most instantly appealing. It’s a glorious piece of music, pop craftsmanship and clever narration coexisting in sweet symbiosis.
3. “The City” from Emergency & I (1999)
Longing is a bitch, and it has resulted in some terribly whiny music over the years. But it also occasionally inspires a masterpiece of the human condition like “The City.” Morrison’s lament to an ex-lover who skipped town is catnip for the brokenhearted, a series of well-deployed details (“The parks lay empty like my unmade bed / The streets are silent like my lifeless telephone”) summed up in the refrain “The city’s been dead since you’ve been gone.” This being the Dismemberment Plan, the sad-sack business is backed by a playful synth melody rolling along on insistent guitars and one of Easley’s most impellent rhythms. So by the time they build to the climactic proclamation, “All I ever say now is goodbye!” the dejection feels downright triumphant.
2. “Back And Forth” from Emergency & I (1999)
The critical shorthand for “Back And Forth” upon its release was “Dylan fronting the Talking Heads.” And while there’s some truth to that, Morrison emotes way too transparently here for Bob’s taste, or even David Byrne’s for that matter. Functioning as the light at the end of Emergency & I’s tumultuous tunnel, “Back And Forth” is the most wistful party jam you’ll ever encounter outside the LCD Soundsystem discography. Riding a simple, rock-solid rhythm, Morrison runs wild with some of the most resonant imagery of his career, making peace with the wreckage before moving on into the great unknown. As his bandmates throw down with increasing furor, Morrison grasps transcendence from a strikingly personal reflection: “And sometimes that music drifts through my car on a spring night when anything is possible, and I close my eyes, and I nod my head, and I wonder how you been, and I count to a hundred and ten. Because you’ll always be my hero, even if I never see you again.”
1. “The Ice Of Boston” from The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified (1997)
The ritual that is jumping on stage to dance with the Dismemberment Plan during “The Ice Of Boston” elevates the song to a different stratosphere, but even for those who’ve never had the pleasure, “The Ice Of Boston” serves as a calling card for everything great about this band. Morrison’s self-effacing story finds him home alone on New Year’s Eve in Beantown, where he may or may not have followed his ex-girlfriend in some pathetic attempt at reconciliation. Musically, it expertly vacillates between funky and anthemic without showing the seams, building to one of indie rock’s great singalong choruses. Lyrically, it’s a powerhouse — sad and funny, particular yet deeply familiar. As usual, Morrison finds levity in the self-absorbed blathering of heartsick youth, boldly exposing his own ridiculousness and, by extension, the ridiculousness of anybody who can relate. It’s a most sympathetic wakeup call, one that commiserates even as it calls bullshit.