To be twentysomething is to be anxious, listless, and confused. Whatever unique obstacles millennials may be facing, the quarter-life crisis — that uncertain phase when adolescence is over but adulthood remains frustratingly out of reach — has long been a mainstay of the human experience. On her masterful 2016 breakthrough album, Mitski called it Puberty 2, but by then people had been making great art about fumbling through young adulthood for decades, from Mike Nichols’ The Graduate to Douglas Coupland’s Generation X to Colleen Green’s I Want To Grow Up.
The Dismemberment Plan made their great contribution to the field in 1999. Emergency & I, released 20 years ago this Saturday, is an exhilarating document of exhaustion. Its 12 songs present four young men and their band on the brink of infinite futures and freaking the fuck out, somehow wrangling a frenetic splatter of emotions and ideas into laser-focused cohesion. In substance and especially in attitude, E&I’s influence runs deep, yet two decades on it sounds as singular as ever.
Formed among college friends on New Year’s Day of 1993 (timing that explains why they took their name from a Groundhog Day quote), the Dismemberment Plan were not completely without peer in the 1990s underground. Whatever you wanted to call their fidgety, rambunctious, often asymmetrical form of indie rock — post-hardcore, dance-punk, math-rock, etc. — it was possible to hear a connection to the rhythmically charged punk of Fugazi and other forebears in the Washington, DC scene. The members often name-checked influences like Brainiac, Moonshake, and Fred Armisen’s old band Trenchmouth. They shared some DNA with art-school marauders Les Savy Fav and, if we’re being honest, funky and dreadfully unhip modern rock hit-makers like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus, and Incubus.
And yet these guys were clearly on their own wavelength. The guitars constantly poked and prodded at a lockstep rhythm section that sometimes felt like a Slinky flopping down the stairs. Occasionally, everything exploded into a humongous chorus or an unhinged noise spree, or both of those maneuvers pitted against each other. You’d think their steadfast commitment to such outbursts would be the most confrontational thing about them, but then they also liberally incorporated keyboards and cozied up to pop, rap, and R&B at a time when those were still radical gestures for an indie rock band. And then there was the microphone presence of Travis Morrison, a charismatic human cartoon whose personality — a mixture of gleeful mischief and sardonic bile, manifested in screams, whimpers, nasally blared melodies, and spoken passages that sometimes veered into quasi-rapping — could be as polarizing as the music itself.
The D-Plan did things other bands just didn’t do. Their show-closing renditions of “OK Joke’s Over” usually found Morrison un-ironically crooning portions of Top 40 hits before the chaotic finish kicked in. They turned one of those hits, Jennifer Paige’s 1998 smash “Crush,” into a dour dirge on the same EP that included their maniacal story-song “The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich.” Years before anyone had ever heard of Girl Talk, they were welcoming fans on stage to dance with them every night during “The Ice Of Boston.” That consistent party atmosphere, and direct affronts like the anti-chinstroke diatribe “Doing The Standing Still,” helped lay the groundwork for trends that would sweep through indie rock in the following decade, when LCD Soundsystem and the Rapture ruled critics’ polls and every hipster bar started a dance night. They spent their entire existence perpetually redefining what an indie band could be, even what a rock band could be. They were one-of-a-kind, and they were prophetic.
Whatever influence the group wielded on music history, it would not have happened without Emergency & I, their masterful third album. On 1997’s The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified, they’d refined the raw materials from ’95 debut ! into combustible off-kilter anthems. Now they were figuring out how to make their bracing, jagged, in-your-face rock music feel like pop without sacrificing its volatility. It helped that they were working with producers J Robbins (Jawbox, Burning Airlines) and Chad Clark (Beauty Pill) and a major-label budget courtesy of Interscope, who signed them ahead of E&I only to drop them before the album came out. The resulting recordings are infinitely brighter and clearer than anything they’d done before, showcasing the elastic chops and peculiar arrangements that made the D-Plan’s songs so dynamic. And holy shit were they dynamic on Emergency & I.
It’s clear from the start that this album will be a trip. Opener “A Life Of Possibilities” begins with Morrison’s falsetto gently pogoing over burbling keyboard bass. Jammy harmonized guitar leads enter where the chorus should be. Everything goes quiet at the bridge, and then the song bottoms out into a behemoth descending chord progression that impacts like the climax of a radio hit despite its discordant tones. It’s a song about how limitless choice can be paralyzing and charting your own course can be alienating: “And no lights lead you onwards / And no signs point you on your way / Just earth in all directions / It’s endless, it’s mapless, no compass, no North Star.” Yet the ensuing album demonstrates how resoundingly right things can go when you forge into the unknown.
Sometimes it does so by simply rendering the ragtag chaos of early Dismemberment Plan more vividly. Squalls of noise and a stuttering drumbeat keep “Memory Machine” feeling like a nervous breakdown. That claustrophobic sensation returns on “I Love A Magician” and “Girl O’Clock,” blitzkrieg laments about modern love or the lack thereof. (“If I don’t have sex by the end of the week,” Morrison stuttered on the latter, “I’m going to die.”) The apocalyptic funk-punk of “8 1/2 Minutes,” too, could have been a holdover from …Is Terrified. These are fantastic tracks, and E&I wouldn’t be the same without their whirlwind aggression. But the album’s highest highs are the moments when they edge a little closer to accessibility without forgoing their abrasive idiosyncrasies.
You can hear the progression toward this ideal by comparing the best songs from their first two albums. Morrison begins “OK Joke’s Over” by demanding, “So tell me the truth now before I get mad: Was I the best lover you ever had?” — and if he was being sarcastic, it’s laid on so thick that it becomes indistinguishable from his anger. Whereas the premise of “The Ice Of Boston” — in which Morrison sits alone in his apartment on New Year’s Eve wondering if his ex is in the crowd gathered outside, eventually stripping naked and dousing himself with champagne — is that he’s in denial about “some pathetic, ridiculous, and absolutely true things about myself.” It was the Dismemberment Plan’s first truly great song, and part of its appeal lie in Morrison’s willingness to make himself the butt of the joke, to personify a hot mess before anyone used the phrase “hot mess.” That self-effacing vulnerability forged a far deeper connection than the extremely ’90s scornful-wiseass tone he sometimes adopted. Throwing a gigantic sing-along refrain in there didn’t hurt either.
By Emergency & I, Morrison was repeatedly nailing that balance of irony and sentimentality first glimpsed on “The Ice Of Boston.” His songs at the turn of the millennium mined catharsis from the near-universal struggles of young-adult life. Anyone who’s ever been stuck in the ruts of a passive-aggressive relationship can throw up their hands and howl along to “What Do You Want Me To Say?” The moody groove “Spider In The Snow” laments the loneliness of working a mundane temp job while watching your superficial college friendships deteriorate. Within the doldrums of “The Jitters” — the least jittery song on the album by far — Morrison reminds us bad-faith relating existed long before Twitter: “No one means what they say / And you can tell as clear as deep-sea fish.”
As good as the first half as, E&I reserves most of its best material for the backstretch. “You Are Invited,” one of the simplest and prettiest Dismemberment Plan songs ever, is a brilliantly constructed parable about FOMO and self-acceptance. The breathless “Gyroscope” draws a canny character sketch in rapid-fire syllables: “If she spins fast enough then maybe the broken pieces of her heart will stay together / But ain’t no gyroscope can spin forever.” And few songs can match the tingle-inducing power of surging synth-rocker “The City” when Morrison raises his voice at the end to proclaim, “All I ever say now is goodbye!” It was basically “All My Friends” eight years early, and it’ll leave you every bit as wrecked.
The album wraps up with “Back And Forth,” one of the its most straightforward and euphoric tracks. In contrast to the violently jerking twists and turns that made much of the record feel like a rollercoaster that didn’t pass safety inspection, this one is built around a steady, simple vamp, hard-bobbing bass and drums overlaid by repeating guitar and keyboard riffs that contribute to the wistful celebratory texture. Against this backdrop, Morrison lets loose with some of his most evocative lyrics, spinning an affectionate screed about nights on the town with an ex that somehow turns into a metaphysical treatise. A critic once compared it to Bob Dylan fronting the Talking Heads, this pile-up of emotions and syllables and rhythms and ideas building intensity until it bursts.
The Dismemberment Plan eventually would succeed at growing up. By 2001’s Change, they were already mellowing out. Within the next decade they’d break up, take a stab at new projects, and ultimately settle down into normal adult lives. When they reunited to reissue Emergency & I in 2011 and release the comeback album Uncanney Valley in 2013, they did so as weekend warriors briefly stepping away from their families and careers — older, wiser, and significantly more chill than the kids who coursed with nervous tension on E&I.
In hindsight, that transformation was already in progress on “Back And Forth,” a punctuation to the pandemonium that feels like making peace and moving on. In time the song has taken on a sort of meta-nostalgia, Morrison’s parting words morphing into an epitaph for the Dismemberment Plan and a youth spent flailing wildly to their work: “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.”