If Dismemberment Plan singer Travis Morrison isn’t really singing about himself, then he’s a genius of fiction: The seemingly confessional nature of his lyrics dominates his band’s most recent effort, Emergency & I.
Both Morrison’s words and his delivery swim with a sense of qualified honesty—listen to him sing and look into his emotions through an unobstructed cardboard tube. Not everything is visible—you would hope—but there’s enough to give that creepy feeling that he’s letting out more than he intended. Always in the first person, he makes no attempt to obscure who’s talking about what.
That’s been the case over six years and two previous full-length LPs. “The Ice of Boston,” from 1997’s The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified, so terrifically captured a moment of loneliness through linear storytelling that I remember wondering if others were hearing the same thing. But on Emergency, the Plan shifts from a great live act with personal lyrics and decent songs to a band with a nearly complete game.
Working with local producers J. Robbins and Chad Clark, the Plan finds its way through a maze of divergent influences. In the past, the band’s compositions have been saddled with conflicting loves of wacky rock and very nonwacky hiphop, R&B, and slow jams, and it has taken until now to sort them all out into consistent and cohesive moments
Taken at face value, the lyrics on Emergency find Morrison contemplative about relationships. How’s this, from “Gyroscope,” for an insight into a stranger’s moment of romantic despair: “Happiness is such hard work, and harder every day and it
can kill you but no one wants to be that tacky about it/If you spin fast enough then maybe the broken pieces of your heart will stay together/But something I’ve seen lately makes me doubt it.”
The lyrics wield the same power in “What Do You Want Me to Say?,” a remake of a single that’s served as the linchpin of the band’s live set. Victims of a well-documented screwing at the hands of Interscope, which signed and dropped the band before Emergency could be released (“They May Have to Amputate,” 1/29), the Plan recorded what would have likely hit big on commercial radio, and for good reason. Blam-loud rock drums, quasi-funky grooves and that spoken-verse/sung-chorus hit-making style are all in effect.
With Morrison in reflecting mode, the band spends its time ripping up dynamic bursts, as on “I Love a Magician,” which crackles with crazy moves on Eric Axelson’s bass and Joe Easley’s drums. The Plan has always taken somewhat typical rock and alt-funk songs and added noise to them, for better and for worse. While the rhythm section and guitar riffs have mostly been on point, the single notes and keyboard noises have occasionally been hit-or-miss. Now, however, “You Are Invited” proves that both Morrison and Jason Caddell better understand where to put their guitars and keyboards. The song starts with a spare drum machine and Morrison telling of yet another emotional entanglement; the noise wash, keyboards, and static bursts slowly hitch to that beat with a clear purpose. The inevitable guitar-rock wrap-up chorus is both anticipated and demanded, and while it titters close to over-the-top, the band manages to keep it on course.
But it’s not just rock or experimentation anymore for the Plan; they also stretch their range in songwriting complexity. “The City” is neither punk rock nor guitar anthem nor brain-damaged funk hybrid. The guitar lines weave on a synth pattern that sounds as if it’s building to something but, instead, eventually proves that it’s already where it’s going. Again, Morrison delivers lyrics of the disconcertingly personal kind: “Oh I never had just whatever it is that you want, baby/And I really tried, I tried and tried with all my might….It made me crazy to try to figure out what it is I’ve done wrong every time when everything I love, everything I hold dear heads out sometimes.”
Emergency combines a lot of source material for a fairly fresh result. The energy and disenfranchised honesty of D.C. hardcore get to dance with the slow-jam lovelorn mentality of commercial black radio, even Sebadoh. And there’s a modest serving of hiphop showmanship and attitude in the performances and arrangements. Had a major label released it, Emergency might have tapped into the current rock-meets-rap fervor dominating radio playlists. Then again, the Plan lacks the rapping midget paraded about by Kid Rock, and, although the production shines, there’s a lot of radio-alienating noise, so maybe the new disc is best left to DeSoto for release.—P. Mitchell Prothero