“So I'm not unsympathetic.
I see why you left,
There's no one to know,
There's nothing to do,
The city's been dead
Since you've been gone.”
The Dismemberment Plan - The City
I have about as complicated an emotional history with the Dismemberment Plan as I have with any other band. They’re not one of my favorites. Far from it. Sometimes their verbose puerility, their hyperactive plurality, their insistence on overcomplicating what might be a good idea if only it was kept simple, seriously aggravates me. Then I realize, these are criticisms that strike me as awfully familiar.
Art is supposed to be all about empathy. Coming into contact with something foreign to you and coming to understand it, identify with it, sympathize with it, and inculcate it in some way into the fiber of your being. You’re supposed to use art to improve yourself. Not like self-help or something. It’s just supposed to help you love the world a little more, or at least further complicate your hatred of it. It’s supposed to offer some new perspective on things, to shine a new light in an old dusty corner, to be a beacon (ed: and give him head whenever he wants). The problem with this is that, on their best album, The Emergency & I, Travis Morrison seems to BE me. Except better. And I don’t mean, like, “I know how you feel, Travis, what universal sentiments!” I mean, like, “Travis, why are you me?! Give me my soul back!”
Finally, I know what it is. I know why part of me doesn’t like – actively dislikes – The D-Plan, even their magnum opus. It’s competition with the creator. It’s a Greek weaver claiming she can weave better than Aphrodite. It’s the Angel of Light bragging about town that he could rule Heaven better than God. It’s hubris. It’s anger that I can’t create a document about how it feels to be me better than Travis Morrison created a document about how it feels to be me. I’m sure this isn’t an uncommon feeling, so come on, people, has there ever been anything so frustrating?
And I know how self-important all this sounds, so let me make it clear that I am not saying I’m any good at all, and I AM saying that the Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency & I IS very good. I’m not saying, “I get this album in a special way that has nothing to do with the way you listen to music or understand music, especially this album,” because for all I know this is the way everybody feels about this album, sans my pretentious reservations. I’m just talking about me here.
Emergency & I is the only album – the only cohesive artistic statement of any kind, really – that sounds or reads or looks or feels the way it feels to be me, without leaving out anything important or meaningful or worth documenting or passing on about myself. It’s a sad-sack asshole idiot of an album. It’s an uneven, hyperliterate, irritating smart-aleck of an album. It’s a guilt-ridden, flustered, overly self-aware nerd of an album. It’s a flexible, athletic, witty, coulda-been jock (if it cared enough) of an album. It’s ashamed. It looks at the future with a dour eye, but dreams of a pleasant tomorrow. It doesn’t really have any malice, it’s not really angry, but it is – and this is the adjective that has been used to describe me more than any other – pretty fuckin’ prickly.
“When they let you down on cue, when you give up way before you even try, then you know you’ve got the jitters.”
I’ve read a million reviews of E&I, trying to “get” it – and by “get it” I don’t mean understand it, rather I mean to love it unequivocally, which, again, is like trying to get myself to love myself unequivocally, which is a fool’s errand – and the reviews don’t really help me. They emphasize how original the D-Plan is, how little the record sounds like records past, how forward-thinking and progressive it is, what a powerful mark it makes on the world of independent rock music. Which is all just utter bullshit, even if it’s true. It’s “I’m TS Eliot and I’m a quack motherfucker” stuff. It all splits the difference between saying “we don’t believe in true, pure progress” and “we believe that progress is a necessary precept of truly enjoying or elevating or appreciating anything,” which is as stupid as anything could possibly be.
I have a friend, whom I’ll call Spike, because his name rhymes with that, who is fond of characterizing music that he has disqualified from potentially enjoying by calling it “easy” and saying something like, “it’s nothing I couldn’t do.” And they say rock and roll comes from the blues! For shame!
But hang on, isn’t what I’m saying even worse? That part of me hates the Dismemberment Plan because I couldn’t, haven’t, won’t, and can’t do what they did?
Well, d’uh! Wave to Salieri.
Here’s a paragraph from formerly-notorious and now completely uncared-about ex-Pitchfork reviewer Brent DiCrescenzo’s review of the disc: “Dismemberment Plan spit in the face of modern music. Perhaps their coup is more analogous to an unexpected sloppy french kiss, in terms of saliva imagery. But Emergency & I heralds a new era in rock and roll. Nothing else you own sounds like this record, yet everything you own echoes throughout. The Dismemberment Plan's chromosomes carry the superior DNA of rock's genealogy through a natural sexual affair with music, not the cold process of cloning. The perfect nucleotides of the Pixies, Talking Heads, Fugazi, and Prince spindle in beautiful double-helixes throughout these 12 tracks. Specific moments recall Gang of Four ("8 1/2 Minutes") or Radiohead ("The Jitters"), but this melange is wholly unique-- boiled down for synapse-popping flavor. Certainly some will scratch their heads, but innovation is never unanimously understood.”
I, also, love a magician. But this, my friends, is bullshit. And apeshit. And batshit. And totally reductive of what actually makes this album magical. By playing the “innovation” card,” what actually makes E&I special – taking things back to first principles – is whitewashed and thrown in the trunk. The entire review is the kind of damned-lie Pitchfork pretension that makes the kind of people who ought to love them hate them. This is where music critics almost unilaterally turn into assholes, and none more than BD. When they start talking about “sounds like.” And I’m not saying sonic touchstones aren’t useful, because they obviously are. The Beatles sound more like the Kinks than they do like Metallica, ok, fine. We all know songs that don’t sound like anything special that sound like the most unique, wonderful, singular things in the world to us. Who gives a shit if D-Plan doesn’t sound like anything else, even if Mr. Di wants to try to map a genealogy of the band in spite of that? Who gives a shit whom they sound like or don’t sound like? Isn’t it more important what they sound like and don’t sound like?
There’s only a pair of sentences in the review that gets anywhere close to rubbing me right without being worse than sort of awful: “A full range of emotions-- orgasm, loss, confusion, uncertainty, resignation, rage-- ooze from The Dismemberment Plan. Paradox is woven throughout-- the alien and the nostalgic, the nascent and the classic.” We’ll chalk the parallel syntax up to formalism, and not sloppy writing, yeah? But the point is, this totemism is the record’s most special element. It’s not that they use keyboards, and people hadn’t been using keyboards in a while. It’s not that they hop around into different time signatures, because wait, didn’t Slint do that a decade before? To hell with innovation, and really who gives a fuck?
I don’t think this record sounds like me because I’m innovative, that’s for sure.
This record is great because, from an eighth of the way through the very first note of “The City,” which is just a guitar note – not even a chord, not even a double-stop, without so much as a lick of legato or vibrato or fuzz or anything to distinguish it from any other guitar note ever played in a garage or a basement or an attic – I can identify it as “The City” by the Dismemberment Plan. And that very plain distinctiveness, that emotional residue of eating some vanilla yogurt on a warm afternoon and remembering that day and every second of that minute for the rest of your life, is far more important and wonderful than any kind of Himmler-inflected genetic singularity that invokes a Master Race hybrid of Prince and Brainiac. I hear it and remember how it feels to be myself.
“Sometimes I stand on my roof at night
And watch as something seems to happen somewhere else.
I feel like the breeze will pick me up and carry me away,
Out and over the iridescent grid,
Up and away from the bar fights and neon lights,
Out and away from everything that makes me what I am.
So I'm not unsympathetic.
I see why you left,
There's no one to know,
There's nothing to do,
The city's been dead
Since you've been gone…
All I ever say now is goodbye.”
I’m always uncomfortable with the phrase “genius” being applied to rock musicians. Genius, it just seems to me, should be saved for people who do something the execution of which is totally out of the realm of comprehension for normal people. Bach, for example, is a genius. If you actually pay attention to the Brandenburg Concertos and don’t write them off as dentist music, as us young turks always tend to do, it will literally make you spit. I mean, it won’t literally make you spit, but it will blow your fucking mind, just in scope and range and depth and breadth and height and complication of execution. And it doesn’t seem right to slot a 3 chord rock song alongside it. It seems to cheapen both. But then I realize, I’m just being a fucking asshole, because while Bach might be THE genius (as Douglas Adams, a virtuoso-motherfucker-genius in his own right, propounds), but that doesn’t mean other, lesser people can’t be, too. Because who draws that arbitrary line? Cocky assholes, that’s who. “The City” by the Dismemberment Plan, by any criteria or rubric by which I know of to judge it, is absolute genius. Except, obviously, the one I apply to Bach.
“The ghosts of graffiti they couldn’t quite erase.”
I’ve put in the work and the time to be able to hit that note. You know the note. “The city’s been dead, since you’ve been GOOOOOOOOONE!” It’s an A-flat, which is a half-step shy of being the highest note a true tenor can REALLY hit. I, like Travis Morrison, am a good singer for being a bad singer. If the song was a half-step up, his voice would quiver and waver and strain. But it doesn’t. Most of Weezer’s first album was played on guitars tuned a half-step lower than standard guitar tuning for the same reason. T-Moz understands his limitations, and plays to his strengths, and even manages to turn his weaknesses into strengths. Musicologically, when he made E&I, Travis knew just enough to know that he knew enough to make music that’s perfect. This is the lesson that is out of my range, and out of your range, and out of Travis Morrison’s range ever since. It’s not anything you can control. It’s a “you’ve got it or you don’t” thing, and none of us have it. And if we do have it, we’re going to lose it. And if we did have it, we’re kicking ourselves for not having it anymore.
All over the record, there’s a back-handed knowledge of indie-rock, the only white American cultural movement in forever that has, at its best, managed to be both authentic in the way of “movement”-based art, as well as accessible and loveable in a way that Dada or cubism never could be. There’s an ambivalent pillaging of black music, culture, and syntax, half-informed by a goodwill spirit of sharing and equality, half-informed by the guilt of the gentrifier and the thief of soul music. Wanting to talk black without being that white guy who talks black. There’s wielding the guitar like a punk, treating it as the Enemy like a true Sex Pistol. There’s wailing for style points instead of purity. There’s everything I ever wanted for myself but couldn’t get, because God didn’t give it to me. And that’s why I hate the fucker, and I hate his fucking album. It’s hubris.
I remember October, 2002-ish, at Gabe’s Oasis, standing there with my arms around a girl I’d known for years but with whom I was on what would be the first of many official “dates,” screaming out at the top of my lungs “I LOVE A MAGICIAN!” during Injury Time, screaming it and screaming it and screaming it right into her ear, “I LOVE A MAGICIAN! I LOVE A MAGICIAN!” Right into her ear. I love a magician. And that’s why I hate the fucker, and I hate his fucking album. It’s hubris. It's a unilateral conviction that I deserve something that I didn't earn.
There’s a one-star review on Amazon.com that made me smile. “A fellow music fan told me to give this a listen. I hated it. The songs are not melodic, thats a tough voice to listen to , the musicianship is nothing interesting. Its just weird music! I tried, listened to it like 50 times, but its just not good. I don't know, maybe I'm too old.” [all sic]. It conjures to mind all the times I’ve been in social situations and irritated some poor soul straight out of his wits just by being my own abrasive self. Later, they always ask our mutual friend, “who the fuck is that kid?!” Well, he’s me. But way better.