It’s a columnist’s cliche to say so, but when it comes to unpleasant inevitabilities, nostalgia’s right up there with death and taxes: We know it lies in wait, poised to deny the whatever’s good right about life right now—age and maturity, cool new shit, the Present. But lately it feeds another perspective-sapping distraction: Microtargeted online lists meant to light up little networks of people who share largely meaningless past experiences, like what massive university they attended or chain store they shopped at in high school. That’s what really grinds my gears. Surely there exists a list of Signs You Listened to Emo. And surely we’re fine as a culture having moved on from emo’s heyday, whatever you might think of Fall Out Boy’s punky new album or that song Haley Williams made with Zedd (or the current output of Dischord Records, for that matter). And I say this as an unreconstructed emo boy.
So what’s to like about a reunited Dismemberment Plan? The band formed in 1993 and broke up 10 years later, after honing a weird and beautiful (and sometimes ugly) sound that earned them a cult of fans but nothing like mainstream stardom. In 2011, they began playing shows again, and this week they release Uncanney Valley, a terrific album they more or less could’ve made the first time around.
Just last week, my colleagues Leah Greenblatt and Kyle Anderson devoted part of the Editor’s Hour on Entertainment Weekly Radio (Sirius channel 105!) to celebrating some of the great indie rock albums released in 2003, the year the Dismemberment Plan broke up. That’s right: Nostalgia for You Forgot it in People by Broken Social Scene, Wonderful Rainbow by Lightning Bolt, Give Up by the Postal Service, Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie, You Are Free by Cat Power, Chutes Too Narrow by the Shins, Hearts of Oak by Ted Leo, and so on.
(I chose all the examples above except for Transatlanticism from Pitchfork’s best of 2003 list. Here they ranked Echoes by the Rapture as no. 1, presumably because it included “House of Jealous Lovers.” Although they explained their choice of the album this way: “It was the most innovative, it was the most inspiring, and with the evening news stuck on an infinite loop of war casualties, economic misery, pedophilia and corporate downsizing, it was the most fun. When this era enjoys its renaissance in fifteen years, we will remember this album: nothing says 2003 more.” You’re on notice, 2018!)
Anyway, all this makeout-ready indie rock (and Lightning Bolt) we’re so fondly remembering from 10 years back came out two years after the Plan released their last album—and it was four years before that when the band delivered “The Ice of Boston,” their closest approximation of a hit. This track came from an EP, their sole major-label release, of the same name—but to put it in a more winsomely nostalgic context, I should mention its inclusion on the classic 1999 compilation Nowcore! The Punk Rock Evolution, a mid-period emo Urtext that included by-definition wistful songs from the likes of the Promise Ring and Braid. “The Ice of Boston” may not be the best song on Nowcore!, though it’s in the top three. And it’s certainly the most original of these prototypically yearning, burning guitar tunes, with a coolly-ironic seeming groove in the verse, a chorus as bombastic and earnest as anything else on the disc, and singer Travis Morrison talkily telling a riveting story of going wackadoo on New Year’s Eve in a frozen city.
Uncanney Valley peaks with a song to rival “The Ice of Boston,” and it’s as effective taking in fast-approaching middle age as “Ice” was describing temporary insanity in one’s early 20s. “Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer” contains all the singular elements of the Dismemberment Plan’s peculiar sound, with a funk-geek’s beat (note the hubba-hubba bassline), geek-geek’s vocals (poignantly reedy), and a chorus that will knock around your noggin all day. Travis Morrison tends to sing in either a rant or reverie, but here he just tells it to mama—about his papa. He starts off: “Growing up, I never knew why daddy was so depressed/he always paid his interest but never got out of debt/If i saw him now I guess I’d feel real old/I’d hand him my baby girl and play some rock and roll, because…”—chorus—”daddy was a real good dancer!” And ends up here: “When they finally lay my cold and creaky bones to rest/I hope i’m not a mystery to those who knew me best.” We learn, in between that wonderful introduction and the end’s not-so-neat little lesson, that daddy “threw his dancing shoes away” after the birth of little Travis. The song celebrates the father anyway. Or maybe cajoles him. Either way, you can genuinely dance to it.
Morrison probably could not have written “Daddy” a decade ago. But that’s not what validates the Dismemberment Plan circa 2013. Their sound’s as oddball and appealing now as it was when they were the weirdos on the Nowcore! CD—it never caught on or conquered anything, and it never seemed like fodder for a renaissance due 15 years from whenever. It’s not that they were ahead of their time. (Although Fall Out Boy shared an expert infatuation with rhythm, and indie rock returns eternally to dance music. Think of Arcade Fire working with James Murphy on their new album.) They inhabit whatever moment Travis Morrison seizes on for inspiration—New Year’s Eve sometime after college, or the day a guy looks at his daughter and thinks of her long-gone grandpa. Nostalgia can’t even begin to describe it.