The Dismemberment Plan's "Emergency & I"

A Record of Colossal Possibilities

by Zachary Houle

25 April 2011


'Emergency & I' is well-rooted with the growing pains of being in your 20s...

Maybe that’s overanalyzing things a bit much, but the point is everything holds up well here. In fact, I only wish that I discovered this album when it first came out, as Emergency & I is well-rooted with the growing pains of being in your 20s, without a girlfriend and without a meaningful job, confused and addled by the rapid pace of modern-day society. This is clearly a young person’s album, and you can feel it when Morrison notes on “Spider in the Snow” that “From the ages of 20 to 22, I had five friends, none of whom names I can recall / And… I would walk down K Street to some temping job as winter froze the life out of fall.” Been there, felt that emotion, perhaps not as explicitly, but, yeah, I can dig. Worth mentioning, too, in the same breath is “Girl O’Clock”, on which Morrison stutters à la Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”: “If I don’t have sex by the end of the week, I’m going to die.” Again, this is a young person’s album, full of post-adolescent angst and longing.

“Spider in the Snow”

“Girl O’Clock”

For an album that was so forward-looking into the future, it may seem odd that an analog medium is being used to present it in a new form to all of the indie rock kids that missed this the first time around. However, Emergency & I works well as a suite in three parts, divided equally by four songs each (and I’ll get to the prizes that comprise Side Four in a moment). “Spider in the Snow” is a clear side-ender with its morose feeling that prompts you to pick up the needle and be exposed to the spartan “The Jitters”, as is side-two closer “Gyroscope”, which is a Pixies-like rocker (and is arguably the most straightforward track on the album) where the band drops out and the song ends on a few lines croaked out by Morrison. And, of course, the almost call-and-response of “Back and Forth” is a clear demarcation point for the end of the album proper, since, well, it’s a real showstopper.

“The Jitters”

“Back and Forth”

That clears space for four more additional bonus tracks previously not available on vinyl and come from various singles of the era that I presume are now long out of print. There’s not one duff track in the bunch, which shows that this band was firing on all cylinders even when they weren’t recording stuff that they felt would make the final cut for Emergency & I. “The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich” (they didn’t) is a fun cut complete with all sorts of bells and whistles and sampled sound effects. “The First Anniversary of Your Last Phone Call” is a particularly delightful piece of emo-ish confessional. “Just Like You” features a slippery bass line against polyrhythmic drumming that bristles with rage at appropriate points. But the real treasure here is “Since You Died”, a song about the literal, in this case, ghosts of past relationships that still haunt our narrator. Actually, thinking about it, I have to wonder if Morrison ever considered writing short stories on the side, because he has a real knack for taking something familiar, as he does in this track, and making it seem downright haunting in an almost literary sense. The real strength of the song, though, is again in the keyboards, which howl with unresolved anger during the breaks between verses (actually, there’s no real chorus to speak of, which illustrates the band’s penchant for playing with structure). All of these songs aren’t mere padding: they feel as though they’re part of the actual album and, as good as the bulk of Emergency & I is, they only strengthen the record’s core.

“Since You Died”


Photo: George Chase

I should mention that it is remarkable that this album was released at all. Around the time that it was put together, Morrison experienced the emotionally polarizing events of both the death of his father and the birth of a child to his young sister. Emergency & I was also supposed to be a major label release on Interscope Records, but, after alcoholic beverage maker Seagram’s (now defunct as a corporate entity) bought the label during the great major label consolidation of 1998, it languished for about a year in limbo before the band was dropped; the album eventually came out on the small Washington, D.C.-based DeSoto Records. There’s a part of me that wishes certain executives at Interscope didn’t get their Christmas bonuses at the time the band was unceremoniously tossed off the label, but I realize that nobody was exactly jumping out of windows for giving up such a priceless gift that Emergency & I is.

All in all, there’s not much else that I can say about the sheer ambitiousness of the record, though, in attaining perfection with this release, you can clearly see that the band really didn’t have anywhere else to go. Sure, they released one more album, 2001’s Change, as well as a kind of “greatest hits” album of remixes by their fans in the form of A People’s History of the Dismemberment Plan. Yet, you get the sense that Emergency & I lives up to its name: that it was such an emotionally draining experience to make it that topping it would have needed the members to slit their wrists and physically draw blood in order to go beyond the wellspring of emotion that makes up the sense of internal crisis and anguish suggested by the album’s title.

In the ratings guide that we PopMatters writers get, a perfect 10 out of 10 is noted as a very rare event. The subject matter has to be truly significant and historically lasting in order for that assigned ranking to get through the editorial process. Well, this is an album that is not only ahead of the curve in many respects, you can hear echoes of it in the work of others—Wolf Parade’s Apologies to the Queen Mary comes to mind. It also transcends the hype that has been awarded it. The accolades the album has earned probably have a role to play in Emergency & I‘s enduring appeal, along with word-of-mouth and endless touring way back when, and are part of the reason I ultimately wound up shelling out the $30 for the vinyl. The other reason being that the cover art, featuring some kind of surrealist landscape, intrigued me, which goes to show that sometimes you can judge a book (or a record) by its cover.

Just in terms of a sheer personal enjoyment factor, I would almost argue the case for a new rating: the Spinal Tap-esque 11. Emergency & I is just a relentless record, full of youthful abandon and insightful penetrations into the technology-addled brain. I just can’t get enough of it. I’ve downloaded the MP3 files offered by the record label just in an effort to preserve my vinyl copy. Even though I do feel that it probably has passed me by in terms of age-appropriateness, this is a record that I don’t want to wear out, grow old of, or sick of. It makes me feel younger than I currently am, which says something about its transformative effect. This is an LP that reaches out, grabs you by the throat and just doesn’t relent. There’s not a misspent note or dishonest emotion. I can say one thing: Believe any and all hype that you’ve read about Emergency & I, here or elsewhere. This is an essential addition to your catalogue, if you don’t already have it, and it is a point-blank flawless, damn perfect album that summarizes what it’s like to be in your twenties with a bad case of, as the D-Plan would call it, “The Jitters”. If you like your music full of unexpected loops and curves, you can do now wrong by putting whatever inhibitions you might have had by Morrison’s solo outings, and pick this puppy up. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it once again: you’ll thank me later. Really.


Photo: David Holloway


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