The indie-rock group The Dismemberment Plan launched into a song called "Girl O'Clock" near the end of a recent set at the 9:30 Club, in Washington, D.C. I was in the audience; I'd been hoping to hear "Girl O'Clock," but not really expecting it, since it's an extraordinarily demanding song by any measure. The most prominent element is a blurred, polyrhythmic drumbeat that seems like it would be impossible to conjure live. Then, over that, there's a lot of breathless stuttering and jerky, staccato guitars—also seemingly difficult to recreate out of the studio. The band nailed it, though, just as they'd been sticking tricky landings all night.
For the kind of person inclined to talk about pop music in religious terms—and The Dismemberment Plan is one of those groups that seems to have more acolytes than fans—a successful performance of "Girl O'Clock" might qualify as a minor miracle. The same thing could be said of the concert itself, though. The Dismemberment Plan broke up in 2003, and except for a pair of benefit shows in 2007, they haven't made any public appearances together until this month. In the past eight years, a lot of rock fans have discovered the band's catalog—which consists of four albums, released between 1995 and 2001—and mourned the fact that they would never see these guys live. This month and next, some of them will be proven wrong.
The Dismemberment Plan always made for challenging listening—the titles of their first three albums are !, The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified, and Emergency & I, and they tell you most of what you need to know about how relaxed the music is—but in the days before 1999's Emergency, their songs could border on punitive. Listen to ! or Terrified, and you'll hear the band expending a lot of energy in ways that don't always make sense. These records are nervy post-punk manifestos; the guitars squawk like fire alarms, and singer Travis Morrison yelps and croons and affects a jokey, knowing delivery that sounds like "Weird Al" Yankovic at his hammiest. There's about an album's worth of decent songs between these two, and then there are offerings like "Bra," where Morrison speak-sings about "going down the Amazon in a light green '57 Chevy / Well you think that's, um, kind of heavy?"
But by Emergency & I, the Plan's best-known and most-celebrated release, the band seemed to have reconciled itself to the idea of writing pop songs. That's not to say the music on Emergency is less cerebral or less expressive than what came before, but there are more melodies you can hum, and a lower spaz-out quotient overall. The band—particularly bassist Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley, who established themselves on Emergency as one of the most capable rhythm sections in rock music—had learned something about contrast and restraint. When it sounds like the wheels are coming off all the time, that sound quickly ceases to mean anything; but if the high-alert stuff is juxtaposed with sleepy, roomy arrangements, like those found on "Spider in the Snow," or interleaved with fist-pumping choruses, as on "Memory Machine," it has a real impact.
It helped, too, that the lyrics on Emergency were head and shoulders above anything the Plan had done before. Morrison doesn't take on virgin topics here—there are songs about the pain of being in love, the terror of being in one's 20s, the thrills and pangs of perfectly mundane events. These are all well-covered subjects in pop music. But Morrison runs at them with a novelist's bag of tricks, spacing out the characteristic Plan meltdowns with wry jokes, impressionistic scenes, and brainy science-fiction conceits. The effect of the earlier records was like having someone grab your shoulders and shout in your face, "Panic! PANIC!" On Emergency, it's as though that person has taken a breath and is trying to explain, "This is why I'm panicking."
This marriage of musical and lyrical strategies—the words are about someone trying to control the chaos in his life, and the music itself sounds like a partly successful attempt to keep chaos at bay—is what makes Emergency & I remarkable. It also points the way toward Change, the band's final album and maybe its most rewarding. If Emergency is the sound of someone explaining their anxiety attacks, Change finds that same person wondering, "What can I do to keep them from happening?" There are moments of optimism here, and perspective, and even empathy. On a song called "The Other Side," as Easley's drums clatter like gunfire, Morrison addresses a lover with as much emotional generosity as I've ever heard in indie rock. "There are songs that will make your skull ring like a dropped cup / Resonating with the reasons why you worked through / And the reasons why you stayed," Morrison sings. This is a song, he explains, "for the long nights when you found a new resolve that I never knew was there."
Change was the first record where the band sort of sounded like it might have its shit together—the first where they were less about dismemberment, more about planning. Naturally, it was also the album that heralded the end of the group's career. The guys went in different directions in 2003, some of them leaving music altogether. Joe Easley does robotics work for NASA now. Travis Morrison is a developer at The Huffington Post.
At the show I attended, though, it was hard to tell they'd been away. On number after number, the band hit their marks, and the audience was right there with them. Of the 12 songs on Emergency & I, the band played ten, and those seemed to generate the highest degree of sing-along; it was clear that Emergency owned the night. I was there at least partly in my capacity as critic, and I'll confess that I didn't do the world's best job of maintaining objective distance; I danced onstage, with a hundred or so other fans, during the traditional stage-rush number "The Ice of Boston," and during the last song of the night, a snarling oldie called "OK Jokes Over," the heat caught up with me and I passed out near the exit, waking up a few minutes later in the ticket area. Whoops. (Incidentally, the 9:30 Club is probably the best place in D.C. to lose consciousness during a rock show; the guys there are absolute pros at getting you back on your feet again.) Still, this seemed appropriate somehow, to lose control at a Dismemberment Plan show and then find it again. There's being aware of what's going on, and there's getting caught up in the moment. The band's whole career is the sound of walking that edge.