There’s a song on the monumental third album by Washington, D.C. quartet the Dismemberment Plan that’s called “What Do You Want Me to Say?”. Those words are staring at me as I write this, suffering from perhaps a little bit of writer’s block. What more can be said about 1999’s Emergency & I that hasn’t already been said elsewhere? The album has been canonized to death, so it seems like no more tributes can be added to this lovingly reissued two-LP set, put out on audiophile 180-gram vinyl (and boy can I say that Barsuk Records did a great job, as my copy of this record sounds ever so immaculate—no pops or nicks or nothing), complete with an oral history of all involved, some photographs of the era, properly sequenced cover art in a gatefold sleeve, and a lyrics sheet.
Remember those Maxell commercials where a butler pops in one of their tapes into a stereo for some dude in a plush chair, only to have various items in the room actually get blown away from the speakers past the guy? That was the kind of effect that Emergency & I had on me the very first time I dropped my Ortofon cartridge into its grooves. I was stunned. Words failed me, as they do now, to render the epic scope and outright raw honesty of this album. In fact, Emergency & I is so memorable, right down to its coy and pensive lyrics, that I actually found myself singing along with parts of it on only my second spin—something I don’t think I’ve ever done before. There’s that old cliché that a band, or an album, can certainly change your life. I’m not sure if Emergency & I is that kind of record—a part of me feels almost too old for it now as an embittered, crusty, frustrated, single, and lonely 35-year-old—but I can definitely report this: it is a damn fine artistic statement by any standard, and if you like angular art-punk music of any stripe, you should (if you haven’t done so already) hunt down a turntable, proceed to your nearest independent music retailer, and plunk down the change for this record. You’ll thank me later.
That said, I have to admit that I was initially a bit leery (and there might be some of you who don’t have the album who feel the same way) about picking Emergency & I up. The reason? I’m of an age that I definitely recall Pitchfork‘s savage beating of a review that gave frontman Travis Morrison’s 2004 solo album, Travistan, released after the Dismemberment Plan’s break-up, a big fat goose egg. Several college stations refused to play the album and some record stores refused to stock it—all on the basis of that sole review. The stoning of Travistan by Pitchfork is considered to be the tipping point where the webzine became the de facto tastemaker for indie rock hipsters, and, in my mind, it was a pretty memorable event. The review pretty much destroyed Morrison’s career, as he would only go on to release one more record before calling it a day and retiring from music—that is, of course, until the D-Plan, as the band is referred to by fans, reunited for a few shows to support this re-release.
Pitchfork‘s berating of Travistan was a bit of a schizoid reaction, too, considering that the webzine had originally given Emergency & I a 9.6 out of 10 ranking, and placed it at No. 16 on its list of the best albums of the 1990s. (Not to be outdone, because I should give props to the web publication that I write for, PopMatters gave Emergency & I a 9 out of 10 upon its initial release, and it wound up making at least one of this webzine’s writers’ Top 10 lists that I know of.) Even with the laurels awarded Emergency & I, there was still that niggling feeling in the back of my cranium. How could a product be so transcendent when one of its makers went on to make something that is, reportedly, outright terrible? Ergo, the first few times that I saw Emergency & I in my local record shop, I walked past it, unsure if the goods were as good as they were said to be. Eventually, however, I caved in, I guess because I hadn’t bought anything in awhile and I was jonesing for a music fix, and I wanted to add something to my collection that would (I hoped) broaden my musical horizons and (I hoped) rock my world. And, boy, did it ever.
There are at least three things that make Emergency & I truly special. First of all, there’s the rhythm section: the bass and drums are completely in organic lockstep without sounding forced or robotic. There’s a whack of different types of percussion on the record, from punk-like tribal pounding to the well-placed use of kitschy drum machines, the latter particularly on “You Are Invited”. Every beat is well placed without a hint of sloppiness and you can dive headlong into the Swiss-watch grooves to be found here. According to the liner notes, co-producer J. Robbins was responsible for keeping the band playing in tempo together, which is a testament to the album’s austere sense of timekeeping.
“You Are Invited”
Second of all, the use of well-placed keyboards made this a stunner. Three of the band members get credited for them on Emergency & I, so you can’t really single out one person, but the keys waft in and out of the proceedings and flex their way right into the music. They’re a major force on album opener “A Life of Possibilities”, on which Morrison sings against some squelchy gurgling without a trace of guitars until some breaks between verses; it’s an arty move that speaks to the group’s fascination with the Talking Heads. Elsewhere, on “The City”, the keys adequately add menace to the background without becoming overbearing, transporting the song into a jaunty rave up. And then there’s “Spider in the Snow”, where a particularly cheap Casio is pushed to the max to make it sound like a Mellotron or even strings without sounding tacky at all. Maybe that’s a product of some brilliant mixing, and the liners point out that this record was knob-twiddled practically to death to achieve the perfect balance between the instrumentation, but this is one rock album where keyboards are not an embarrassment or lessen the impact of the crunching guitars.
“A Life of Possibilities”
Third and lastly, you have Morrison as both a nervous vocalist and profound lyricist. In particular, “You Are Invited” is a showcase for him as he’s strictly backed by only a drum machine for much of the track, aside from a burst of scorching guitars. On it, he comes across as equally earnest and unsure as he unspools a lengthy narrative about being invited to a party, going and feeling out of sorts, even though his presence is appreciated by at least one (ex-significant) other in the room. Then there’s “What Do You Want Me To Say?”, where he seems jittery and on edge, warbling his way through the song—and with good reason. He got a phone call from his girlfriend, who was calling to break up with him, right in the middle of the recording session. His delivery, in fact, reminds me a little of Gord Downie from the Tragically Hip, which may strike you as an odd comparison for those of you reading this in Canada. Morrison has got that certain tic in his vocal prowess here that’s remarkably similar to Downie’s, and there are also moments in the proceedings—particularly during the full-band portion of “You Are Invited”—where the group shares similar bluesy alt-rock noodlings to the Hip; if you close your eyes, you can barely hear the difference between the two. But I digress.
An argument can be made that Emergency & I is more timely and relevant in the year 2011 than it was in 1999 for a number of reasons—yes, you can take that comment to mean that this LP has certainly aged well. For one, when Morrison sings, “Red wire: Right temple / Black wire: Left temple” on “Memory Machine”, he might as well have presaged the whole social media phenomenon by about ten years, where everyone is connected to Facebook or Twitter like it’s an extension of their own humanity. Similarly, “What Do You Want Me to Say?” opens with the portending line “I lost my membership card to the human race,” again gazing forward to the feeling of disconnectedness in today’s computer age where everyone is seemingly linked in to everyone else, yet not part of something, a community.
Photo: Dave Holloway
'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”
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.
“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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