The Anniversary

Change Turns 20

DeSoto
2001
DeSoto
2001

Eventually, even the wild ones settle down. There are always exceptions, those full-fledged grownups in nightlife scenes around the world who’ve maintained a bustling pace of life for decades. But there comes a time for many people when the possibility of youth gives way to the stability of adulthood. Maybe, by choice or necessity, you exchange freedom and flexibility for a steady paycheck and a morning routine. Maybe you buy a house and discover the joys of lawn care. Maybe you have children and those kids consume your every waking hour. You begin to understand the appeal of hobbies that once seemed horrendously boring. Chilling at home feels so much easier than going out. Your life changes.

The Dismemberment Plan were not the most obvious candidates for aging gracefully. Over the course of three albums, the Washington, DC quartet had refined and evolved their rhythmically charged take on indie rock, accentuating their music’s accessible qualities without dialing down the quirky, confrontational livewire energy that coursed through it. In 1995, they had quite rightly titled their combustible lo-fi debut with a single exclamation point. In 1997, The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified yielded an anthem in “The Ice Of Boston” but maintained a jarring, almost cartoonish volatility, like Jim Carrey fronting Devo. And then, on 1999’s damn-near-perfect Emergency & I, they’d turned that twitchy, explosive post-punk into outright pop music, pumping it full of sonic color and emotional depth. E&I was a classic quarter-life crisis album: Travis Morrison sang about the messy uncertainty of twentysomething life in wry outbursts and heart-on-sleeve hooks, and his band mirrored that tumult in a way that felt downright cinematic, all without discarding the shrieking, the petulance, the weird time signatures, the discordant noise.

With that history in mind, the relative calm and straightforwardness of Change was an unlikely achievement. Released 20 years ago this Saturday, the band’s fourth album ended their original pre-reunion run with surprising poise. I don’t know if they realized they were making their finale at the time, but in hindsight Change feels very much like an endpoint for this band. Their idiosyncrasies remain — the surprising chord changes, an uncommon focus on jittery grooves, lyrics that render everyday drama in vivid, fantastical imagery — but they’re reined in and smoothed out in service of prettier, more contemplative songs. Even when Morrison erupts into pained wails on “Secret Curse,” or when drummer Joe Easley Tasmanian-devils his way through the entirety of “The Other Side,” that old feeling that everything might spiral out of control gives way to a steadfastness that sometimes verges on placidity. It is the first Dismemberment Plan album you could not describe as “zany.”

Morrison was approaching 30 when the Plan made Change, and that sense of settling down is all over his lyrics. The album begins with the moodily propulsive “Sentimental Man,” on which Morrison stakes out his metaphysical territory (“There’s no heaven and there’s no hell”) before making the kind of declaration that suggests the loss of youthful idealism: “I’m an Old Testament type of guy/ I like my coffee black and my parole denied.” It ends with “Ellen And Ben,” a character sketch about a real-life couple who fell in love and disappeared from the scene: “They’d show up at shows/ But less and less, and saying hi to no one/ And why they even came wasn’t clear.” For his part, the Morrison of Change seems reluctant to let go of the nomadic creative lifestyle he’d been living for the past decade. “I get up at 5AM, I so don’t need those dreams that I used to have,” he laments on the gorgeously glittering “Following Through,” his class-clown affectation curdled into bitterness.

If the D-Plan’s career was beginning to feel unsustainable, musically they remained in top form, dynamic and exploratory to the end. The shimmering “Superpowers” blooms into a lush panorama, the sound of nature dancing in time with itself. “Time Bomb,” a darker-edged musical sequel to E&I‘s synth-guitar symphony “The City,” lives up to its title by tensely ticking its way toward each successive detonation. There is a case to be made for “The Face Of The Earth” — on which a woozy, wobbling groove accrues bits of melody and noise before finally blasting off into a crystalline surge, all while Morrison recalls the time his girlfriend stepped away from a kiss and was whisked into the sky, never to be seen again — as their finest achievement. At the very least, it is the best, most surreal song about being ghosted I’ve ever heard. (“It’s been a couple years and I guess I’m fine about it,” Morrison sings. “It’s not like we were married, it was three or four months.”)

That kind of wistful resignation is the album’s prevailing mood, even when the music is frantic, and especially when it descends into quiet bleakness. Looking back, Morrison, who’d spend the years immediately after the Plan attempting to launch a doomed solo career, sounds like he was in mourning for a phase of his life that was drawing to a close. Yet Change is not a depressing album. It’s an inventive, invigorating triumph — as good a parting statement as you could hope for from one of your favorite bands.

Not that I realized it was a parting statement when I was spending the 2001-2002 school year inducting the Dismemberment Plan into my own personal canon. Within two years of releasing Change, the Plan would cease to exist, but that was plenty of time for me to go from complete ignorance to the kind of superfandom that has you driving all over the country to see as many concerts as possible. The band’s music might have been growing more streamlined and restrained, but their gigs remained raucous parties, highlighted by traditions like fans piling on stage to dance during “The Ice Of Boston” and Morrison lacing bits of pop hits into the show-closing “OK Jokes Over” — ridiculously fun rituals that proved to be massively influential on the evolution of indie rock.

So of course in October 2002, basking in the newfound freedom of college, a friend and I drove across Ohio to Cleveland to see the Plan. And of course between Thanksgiving and Christmas, another friend and I saw them in Pittsburgh. In January, the morning after a transcendent gig in the back of a Lexington, Kentucky art gallery, the Plan announced they’d be hanging it up before the end of 2003. I was devastated, and the urge to dance onstage at as many Dismemberment Plan shows as possible only intensified. So that spring, when they played a hometown show at the Black Cat, I drove to DC and back in a night. That summer, I drove to Fort Reno for what was to be their final performance. And when that gig was tarnished by drizzle, I came back to Washington to witness one more incredible, communal celebration at the 9:30 Club.

The Plan have gotten back together occasionally over the years. They played a charity gig in 2007 that I was frustrated to miss. They toured in support of an Emergency & I reissue in 2011, occasioning trips to New York and Chicago to relive the old magic. In 2013, they even released a new album, Uncanney Valley, which I did not love, but which sounded great when I caught them at Coachella in 2014. On that night, the Plan were booked in a nightmare time slot opposite Nas, Skrillex, Muse, and the Pet Shop Boys. I had to laugh: Here they were playing the biggest music festival in America, and they remained an afterthought. By then I had entered my thirties, too. The following year I’d become a dad. At this point my wife and I have three kids, and I don’t get out to nearly as many shows as I used to. Concert road trips are an extreme rarity. Like the Dismemberment Plan, I’ve officially settled down. But if this band ever announces another show, you’d better believe I will do everything in my power to be there. That’s one thing that will never change.

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