By: Eric Greenwood
The Dismemberment Plan could not have produced a better follow up to Emergency & I than Change, its fourth full-length. Emergency & I was an anomaly for several reasons- it’s critical success notwithstanding. First, it was the synthesis of everything that is great about The Dismemberment Plan. The band’s earlier releases were truly acquired tastes, rife with sonic schizophrenia and lyrical paranoia, but Emergency & I brought to fruition the band’s quirky, analytic post-punk and made it palatable for a wider audience. Second, it’s one of those rare records where everything- every note, every nuance is just exactly the way it should be. Travis Morrison’s wordy narratives coupled with his nasally yet sympathetic voice led an onslaught of some of the most cutting edge, albeit spastic, pop songs since the heyday of the Talking Heads.
Trying to duplicate that success would have been a big mistake for its next album, so The Dismemberment Plan wisely chose to veer in an altogether different direction. The result is a thoroughly engrossing set of intricately defined modern pop, the roots of which were clearly planted on Emergency & I, but the band draws in the reigns somewhat on the noise factor to cast a darker shadow on the proceedings. The songs are longer, roomier in a sense, weaving in and out of one another with complex arpeggios, alternate rhythms, and serene, Cure-like keyboards. Morrison’s subject matter is still a conversationalist’s glance at dissolving relationships, but he gives his voice a better workout, honing his far-underused falsetto and flattening some of his hurried chirps. It’s an album that takes several listens to sink in properly, but once it digs its claws in, you’ll find yourself submitting willfully to its genius.
“Sentimental Man” kicks off Change with the band’s familiar fusion of disco beats, chiming guitars, and Morrison’s instantly recognizable voice. The song ebbs and flows on an expansive scale with repeated musical phrases spread so far apart that when they return they sound brand new. Morrison’s undulating falsetto floats above the din of guitars: “there’s no heaven and there’s no hell/no limbo in between- I think it’s all a lie/just a white light out to velvet black/and back to neutral grey- that’s all when we die.” Sustained keyboards segue into the slow funk of “Face Of The Earth”, which quickly bursts into a major chord jangle. Morrison’s strange description of a few months with a girl before she’s “blown from the face of the earth” turns out to be the perfect foil to the snaky rhythms. It all syncs up perfectly in the powerfully propulsive chorus. The band’s dynamic shift will send shivers down your spine.
The grooves are so smooth on “Superpowers” that the song sounds like a rehash, but you’ll rack your brain trying to figure out what it was nicked from before realizing that it is just that good. The chorus sounds hokey on a cursory listen because of the word “superpowers”, I guess, but the lyrics quickly stymie any dismissive thoughts. Morrison’s penchant for carving out the most intimate slices of life is humbling: “I have watched the rich risk it all for 15 minutes in a Heathrow bathroom/I have shuddered as an unseen mouth slid down my spine every night.” “Pay For The Piano” is the first taste of speed on Change, and you wouldn’t have even noticed the lack thereof if it weren’t for the jarring introduction. This is The Dismemberment Plan of yore: herky jerky rhythms, verbose choruses, and a strange amalgam of post-punk and funk, but somehow it’s not as exciting as the new, slower, more effusive Dismemberment Plan.
The way Morrison wraps his voice around the empty space in “Come Home” is astoundingly good. His melodies seem so complicated at first. I scratch my head and wonder how he thought to sing that melody over this chord, but it all makes sense in the end. He’s a bit of a bad ass. His voice will probably be unnerving to some, but if you can resolve yourself to his nasally style then you’ll reap the rewards. He’s hands down one of the top lyric writers out there. And even when he falters with something that reads overly sentimental or cheesy on paper he manages to deliver it so well vocally that you forgive the minor transgression- either that or the music saves his ass. “Secret Curse” is another “fast one” just to shake up the mix- the “fall back” in case you don’t take to the new stuff immediately. It’s spastic and frantic without losing melody. Morrison wails over the razor sharp riffs. This formula was perfected on Emergency & I, so it seems superfluous here.
The only true ballad, “Automatic”, features Morrison half-talking/half-singing over a repetitive acoustic riff, complete with eerie background noises. The lyrics are too vague here to have the impact required for such intimacy. It’s hardly an embarrassment, but it’s definitely one of the album’s weakest moments. The riff that opens “Following Through” is uplifting yet distant. It builds into a driving chorus that Morrison dominates with lyrics that no woman in a relationship would ever want to hear: “I can do it anywhere with anyone at any time don’t you forget this is my life and it’s going to be good, don’t you know/not a promise or a threat or an ultimatum, though I can do that too I’m just telling you, I’ve got this life I’ve got to live- I’m just following through.” To make such verboseness catchy is an art form that Travis Morrison seems to be shaping all by himself.
The pinnacle of Change, however, is the ninth song, “Time Bomb.” It is the best Dismemberment Plan song I have heard, bar none. The lyrics are mind-blowing. The guitars are ferocious and dynamic. The drums stutter and surge. Morrison sings like his life is one the line, which makes the words hit even harder. The subject matter is too clever for just any band to have come up with it. Morrison writes from the perspective of various weapons of destruction- some infected in a lover’s body; others lying dormant until the moment is right to attack, but all are threats to a lover, beyond the point of return. The music springs from a bizarre mix of Jawbox, The Cure, The Police and Fugazi, and Morrison bleats out such shrewd lines as “I am a trip wire stretching across the road you’re barreling down tonight/the thinnest twine, waiting to be released right beyond your sight.” All the raucous noise halts suddenly, and Morrison practically speaks the most profound lines of the song: “I am a time bomb and I only live in that moment in which you die.” It’ll raise the hair on your neck.
After “Time Bomb” it’s hard to pay attention to much of anything, but “The Other Side” is another gem. Insanely fast and impressive drumming spazzes out while heavily treated guitars soar above the erratic rhythms. The bass line is a descending mock-dub run, and it"s so good you have to hear it to believe it. Morrison is spitting out so many words it’s hard to follow along. This is one song where the music overtakes Morrison as opposed to the other way around. It’s a frantic glimpse of structured panic. At the other end of the spectrum is “Ellen And Ben.” Such a happy-go-lucky note is an odd way to close an album as important as Change is to the band"s career. The cleverness of the lyrics is obscured by Morrison’s ho-hum “I’m just an observer” delivery. Blah. It"s a puzzling ending to an unbelievable album.
Emergency & I defined The Dismemberment Plan as an explosive concoction of spaced-out-dub-funk-punk with heart on your sleeve lyrics and quirky vocals. It was an album of anthems and angst and isolation as seen through the eyes of an erudite wordsmith and his experimental bandmates. Change redefines The Dismemberment Plan as purveyors of a much more serious and contemplative brand of emotional pop. The fury is still there- it"s just not the only means of expression. The Dismemberment Plan is a smart band that isn"t interested in repeating itself, and that"s the only way to keep people guessing.