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The Dismemberment Plan’s 2001 album Change, released this week on vinyl for the first time, is a reissue apropos of nothing. The record isn’t celebrating a denomination-of-five anniversary, and it comes just a little more than a year after Uncanney Valley, the band’s first studio record since Change.
But then again, timing—anywhere other than the stage, where Travis Morrison, Eric Axelson, Jason Caddell, and Joe Easley were Steely Dan–tight and nerdy and post-Dischord fervid—has never been the Dismemberment Plan’s strong suit. The band broke up two years after Change, saying goodbye with a freaking remix record and a very long string of tour dates, and according to most interviews with the band, reunion album Uncanney Valley just kind of just happened.
Change is one of those beautiful gatefold LPs, but the cover art, unfortunately, has been blown up from its original CD size to the much larger LP size, and it looks atrocious. The iconic CD image—an already grainy, sunburnt photo of the sky, a red sign in the left corner that reads “Change” tilting into the frame—looked like the album sounded and might as well have invented Instagram’s aesthetic by accident. On the LP, it’s blurry and pixelated, like some bootleg version of the album. Why re-release something if it looks shoddier than the original? Design a new cover, tile the image—anything.
Still, the album sounds even better on vinyl, which makes it ripe for reconsideration. Every strange little electronic flourish floating in the background of the soft, ornate album is clearer; Morrison’s muttered asides stand out too, as if he’s sending the listener little resigned confessions that make the whole thing feel more intimate a decade-plus later.
And this random rerelease of Change will make it easier to separate from 1999’s Emergency & I, a still-massive quirky masterpiece that raised the band’s profile but also intimidated artistic growth. The Dismemberment Plan was (is?) at its best when it was (is?) executing an iffy-to-just-plain-bad idea and saw it through anyway—that is, no doubt, why the band had (has?) such a singular nervous and agitated sound. Change was, at least until Uncanney Valley, its most precariously balanced album, the one that felt like it could fall apart at any moment.
The jangly, jazz-fusion feeling of most of the songs, as if the band was never really in a rush to wrap these tracks up (perhaps the members knew this was ostensibly the end) remains a fascinating head-scratching element. The drum-n-bass percussion by way of the Roots’ “You Got Me” on “The Other Side” comes from a time when nods to hip-hop were daring for rock rather than de rigeur, and it’s still jarring. A winding, noodling guitar solo wraps up the otherwise impassioned “Superpowers,” affording the song a churlish, wanky anti-climax. Nothing here happens how you expect it to happen. Opener “Sentimental Man” and the next track, “The Face of the Earth,” are essentially one long song—the band’s oppressive lack of pretension kept it from kicking off the record with an eight-minute two-parter, though it totally should have.
Here, the Dismemberment Plan was always going out on a limb, experimenting for real, which isn’t quite as sexy as aggressive art-rock sea changes. Instead, the limb was coy and occasionally corny, but hey, I’ll take that. At one point on “Come Home”—solid evidence that Morrison is a poet of the depressed and quotidian variety, frighteningly good at stacking small novelistic details on top of one another to convey what it’s like to feel very, very shitty inside—he just sings ba-ba-ba-bas instead of delivering real lyrics, almost as if he’s too down in the dumps to do the hard work of a lead singer. Plenty happens on the busy track, but it begins and ends with the same line: “Called in sick to work today/I couldn’t have gotten a damn thing done,” as if the song went nowhere. Fitting, because depression is all about stagnation, isn’t it?
And what to make of the fact that, at least until last year, the final D-Plan song was “Ellen and Ben,” a bizarre and almost stalkerish break-up tale in which our narrator totally co-opts the narrative? What’s most striking about this song, which tells the presumably semi-truthful tale of two real D-Plan acquaintances who fell in and out of love (Ben of the song is Ben Valis, a dedicated booker of shows and scene supporter), is when Morrison whines about coming over to get his copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and having to endure Ellen and Ben totally in love, naked in bed, making out. “I thought it was rude,” he sings like a bratty, jealous friend who knows better but just needs to get that jab in there.
Later, “Ellen and Ben” shows its hand when it impulsively switches to first-person, full-stop, like it’s not even about the titular characters anymore but Morrison, and reminisces like an ’80s-baby version of Proust: “When I was 10, I had this book of modern fighter planes/F-15s and MiGs/That and a bowl of Breyer’s Mint Chip was life at its apex.” Huh, what? At that point, the Plan comes together, galloping along one “last” time, (at least for 12 or so years). Change is 10 tracks of good-bad-good ideas nibbled, explored, and riffed on before our very ears until they turn into great ideas by sheer force of the band’s imagination.
Look at it this way: The Dismemberment Plan of Change does not give a fuck. (Conversely, the Dismemberment Plan of Uncanney Valley does not give a shit, which is not quite as puckishly impassioned but not without its charms.) This is the band’s most dense and complicated record, which doesn’t mean it’s its best, but it does make it the hardest to parse. And certainly, in 2014, when the rock part of “indie rock” is increasingly a rarity, when sounding pleasant and cribbing moves from electronica and hip-hop is the norm, Change feels of-the-moment instead of out there all alone, as it did back in 2001. It turns out, at 13-years-and-almost-two-weeks old, Change’s return is right on time.
The Dismemberment Plan plays the 9:30 Club on Nov. 28.