Premature Evaluation: The Dismemberment Plan Uncanney Valley
Until now, the Dismemberment Plan’s discography has been a near-perfect chronicle of the arc from smartass youthful exuberance to quarter-life crisis to grown-up stability, culminating in the well-adjusted grace of 2001’s Change. And what follows such strides into adulthood but marriage, kids, day jobs, and a retreat from the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle (after some ill-fated spinoffs, of course)? That’s where this once-spastic band’s members were at two years ago when they got back together for some tour dates to promote the reissue of 1999’s Emergency & I, their masterpiece of fractured pop and frayed nerves. They had dispersed (dismembered, if you will) into different cities, into new lives. They had moved on. Music was just a hobby now. But those reunion shows were incredible, and behind the scenes there was enough of a creative spark to keep the D.C. post-punks convening, jamming, writing, recording — reviving the chemistry that made them one of the most formidable units to ever make noise together. And now, 12 years after their last LP and 10 years since their breakup, there’s a new Dismemberment Plan album. The occasion demands emoji; words will not suffice.
It’s impossible for me to approach Uncanney Valley with anything resembling a level head. As I explained last year, this band means the world to me. They are personal canon — desert island material. And maybe that means my expectations were impossibly high, but 2013 is a music year when impossibly high expectations have been routinely surpassed. Alas, not here. Uncanney Valley is not a triumphant return. It’s just a return.
OK, OK, OK. It’s a pretty good record. As I’ve lived with it these past few months, I’ve come to appreciate its wrinkles. And I do mean wrinkles; if Change was the sound of the Dismemberment Plan settling down, Uncanney Valley is full-on dad rock. It is music without stakes, but maybe with steaks, fresh off the grill. It is all sighs and no gasps. It is the middle-class version of Justin Timberlake’s satisfied marriage tome The 20/20 Experience, but without the epic scope. In an unfortunate but understandable way, it continues to match the Dismemberment Plan’s music with its members’ stage of life, which happens to be a relatively placid stage at this point. This is a humble little record, a record of pleasant songs by thoughtful people. I like it. I just can’t imagine singing my lungs out to it or launching into gleeful convulsions when it comes on.
The electricity is missing. These songs have their twists and turns as Plan songs always do, but they won’t spin you around like the old ones did. The album is a late-period Simpsons season: smart and funny and touching in all the recognizable ways, but not as sharp as it used to be. Simpsons loyalists can substitute The Office or any other genius show that outlived its inspiration. Maybe the similarly resurrected Arrested Development is the best parallel, depending on how you feel about that Netflix season. There are fresh sounds to admire: the sleigh-bell-jingling, piano-plinking wah-wah swoon “No One Is Saying Nothing”; the easygoing shimmer of “Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer”; the rollicking hybrid “Go And Get It,” which grafts a Coldplay intro onto some kind of alternate universe rocker where Stevie Wonder plays keys for Thin Lizzy — actually, that’s far too exciting a summary for that song. There’s plenty of creativity on display, but not the kind that grabs you and shakes you and leaves you breathless.
Uncanney Valley does offer some glimpses of vintage Dismemberment Plan. Closer “Let’s Just Go To The Dogs” is a seasoned, softened sequel to Emergency & I’s frenetic closer “Back And Forth,” complete with a call-and-response bridge (“When I say ‘cluster,’ you say ‘fuck!'”) and a muted funk groove. Similarly, “Invisible,” a minor-key number about feeling alone in a new city, plays like a companion piece for E&I isolation jam “Spider In The Snow.” I can imagine “Mexico City Christmas” and “White Collar White Trash” snuck somewhere in the middle of Change. Keyboard squelches abound. Most crucially, Travis Morrison’s voice is still a trusted friend. His turns of phrase are still clever, his observations still incisive. He’s still the same old goofball who can stop you in your tracks when he decides to get serious.
Morrison’s lyrics are my favorite part of Uncanney Valley. His non-sequiturs remain hilarious, starting with the very first lyric, “You hit the spacebar enough and cocaine comes out/ I really like this computer!” His descriptions of lonely afterparties and late-night taxi rides home in “Invisible” match scenery with internal narration in a way that hearkens back to “The City” or “The Ice Of Boston” and is just as relatable. Now that he’s old enough to identify with his father, his observations on parental sacrifice in “Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer” are heartbreaking. And on the doe-eyed love song “Lookin,” he expresses the kind of affection that remains when a romance’s initial passion and mystery are long since past: “Once he wanted to paint her naked/ Now he only wants to paint her.”
“Lookin” is immensely touching, but it also underlines why Uncanney Valley is a second-rate Dismemberment Plan LP. Morrison is happily married now and far removed from the tumult of his younger years. Like their old touring buddy Ben Gibbard, the Plan’s best work was catalysed by, if not sadness, the lingering threat of sadness. There was an anxious uncertainty driving them: the prospect of dreams deferred, the possibility of ending up alone. Now those questions are settled — they feel settled, at least — and so the music is less explosive. There is no more need for a gyroscope to keep the broken pieces of Morrison’s heart together anymore. (Actual lyric from Uncanney Valley: “Rainy days are over/ Not a cloud in sight.”) The result is songs that feel like accessories from a band whose catalog is stuffed with essentials.
I don’t begrudge them that. Whether we’re talking music or athletics or even TV shows, I don’t buy the idea that our greatest talents should quit while they’re ahead to preserve their legacy. The world is a better place with more Dismemberment Plan songs in it, even lesser Dismemberment Plan songs, especially if that means more Dismemberment Plan concerts. Uncanney Valley is a disappointment, yes, but once the initial disappointment wears off, it’s possible to appreciate it for the above-average indie-rock record it is. Morrison is correct: “Nothing lasts forever, and that’s alright.”
Stream Uncanney Valley at NPR.