The Valley in the Career of the Dismemberment Plan
A lot has happened in the 12 years since the last album by Dismemberment Plan, or D-Plan as fans affectionately call them. When 2001’s Change was released, we had just witnessed the fall of the twin towers, bombs were raining down on Afghanistan, and George W. Bush was sitting pretty in his first term of office, riding high on terrorism-age popularity. A lot has naturally, erm, changed. But change is the furthest thing in mind for the Dismemberment Plan on their reunion album, the deliberately misspelled Uncanney Valley. By that sense I mean that the album is not the natural evolution from such a classic record as 1999’s Emergency & I. Instead, it is as though that disc had never happened. Which may lead listeners to have differing minds: on one hand, some might be happy that the group is just glad to be back together and making music. After all, Emergency & I is such a high bar that trying to re-attain that height might make one burst a blood vessel in your cranium. On the other hand, you might listen to Uncanney Valley and wonder what’s the overall point to be had.
I fall into that latter camp.
That’s not to say that Uncanney Valley doesn’t bear some resemblance to Emergency & I. The call and response of final song “Let’s Just Go to the Dogs Tonight” (advice that the band appears to be following here, because, as frontman Travis Morrison notes, “nothing really matters”) actively recalls the spry fun of “Back and Forth”. Meanwhile, “White Collar White Trash” apes the “Red wire: right temple / Black wire: left temple” mantra of “Memory Machine”. And “Living in Song” has the same truncated feel of “Gyroscope”. But if you came into Uncanney Valley looking for a “You Are Invited” or a “The City” or a “What Do You Want Me to Say?”, well, sorry. There is nary a really great song to be found on Uncanney Valley, though “Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer” comes close and “Mexico City Christmas” has its charm, too.
Perhaps this is unfair. Perhaps it is unfair to expect a band that hasn’t recorded in more than a decade to come back and deliver a balls-to-the-wall, spastic album in the vein of their best known record, one that is up there with the best of Radiohead, Modest Mouse, Guided by Voices and others for Album of the 1990s. Still, you get the feeling of what could have been from listening to Uncanney Valley. I’ve pointed out here on PopMatters that Emergency & I was about the growing pains of being isolated and alone in your 20s, and Uncanney Valley could have easily positioned itself as the flipside equivalent to what it is like to navigate through your 40s in 2013. But, aside from an exception or two, this is sadly not realized. Instead, what we get is a record that the press release has fluffed up into a state of hyperbole by calling it the band’s BEST. EVER., which would be like saying that The King of Limbs is the best Radiohead album.
So, yeah, not quite.
So let’s dissect the good parts before we dive into what went so terribly wrong here—because, as it would turn out, there is some good in Uncanney Valley and a large part of it happens in its second half. For starters, “Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer” is this album’s centerpiece song about going after your dreams and having them aborted once one starts a family (“Daddy, daddy was a real good dancer / Until he had me / And then he threw his dancing shoes away.”) It’s the one moment on the LP where there’s an honest-to-God serious emotion that one can really feel and understand, especially if you’re a listener on the cusp of middle age. There’s some sadness and regret to be had among the somewhat jazz-rock riffs. As well, the aforementioned “Mexico City Christmas” has a syncopated electronic percussion beat to it, one that might have listeners drawing lines back to Emergency & I. And “Let’s Just Go to the Dogs” is fun, no matter how you slice it – even though it is silly. Now, if you back up a little bit and go to the front half of the record, you get a haunting, harrowing melody in “White Collar White Trash” during the chorus. And “Invisible” is a great ode to the unemployed in this economy of austerity (“I thought I’d be working in mid-town, a winner / And now I’m biting my nails and I’m calling it dinner.”)
However, where Uncanney Valley falls apart is that Morrison has apparently devolved as a lyricist at times. Or at least has become a complete hedonist. When the opening lines to “No One’s Saying Nothing”, whose guitar melody nicks from an early Robert Plant solo outing (“In the Mood”) while resembling something out of the Walkmen overall, goes “You hit the space bar enough / And cocaine comes out / I really like this computer,” well, um, yeah. I’m speechless. I really am. You’re absent from music as a band for 12 years, and you chose those words to open your record. I suppose that’s just the D-Plan being goofy and having fun, but if you had a moment where you thought Uncanney Valley might at least relive past glories, it all pretty much is not so much deflated as balloon popped outright with that lyricism. In that sense, Uncanney Valley is over as an album just a mere 27 seconds into it. But that’s not all. Whereas Emergency & I was, in part, about sexual frustration, Uncanney Valley is outright cocky about it to the point where you have to wonder: is this the same band? “White Collar White Trash” opens up with “I am not an inhibited man / I try to keep it in my pants when I can” before going off to quote all the cities and towns where the song’s protagonist has done it.
Maybe you can get past the crummy lyrics. Maybe you can get past the fact that there’s no screaming on this record. Maybe you can get past the lack of chintzy keyboards (well, they are sort of there on “Waiting”, but making funny sounds is not the same as making earnest ones with the cheapest equipment possible). Maybe you can get past the lack of angularity and build-up that a song like “You Are Invited” possessed. Maybe you can get past the fact that some of this even sounds remotely vaudevillian in a kind of Todd Rundgren-esque way (the opening bars of “Waiting”). Maybe you can get past that, based on this, the Dismemberment Plan doesn’t have another Emergency & I in them—not even close. If you can do all of that, congratulations, Uncanney Valley might do something for you. And, truthfully, it’s not that bad of a record by usual standards, I suppose. It’s just that this is the D-Plan, after all, and you’re expecting something better. It could be this is just the build up to the release of this record was one of hype to the max: I’m repeating myself here, but the press release (always a reliable source, I know) made the breathtaking claim that this is the very best Dismemberment Plan album “to date”. Well, then. Better than Emergency & I? Really? Really? FREAKING REALLY? Man, PR guy, you slay me. You’re killing me here.
Uncanney Valley is just okay, which, by D-Plan standards, means that this could very well be the worst thing they’ve ever done. Which is to say that, with Uncanney Valley, the band has turned in a decidedly average record that is the garbled sound of a band learning to play together with itself once again, many, many years later. I guess there’s something to be said about going the Pixies route and not recording a follow-up album (recent EP be damned). Your best bet, if you love Emergency & I as much as I do, is to just pretend that Uncanney Valley never happened. It’s not a bad record, but, again, that bar was set pretty darn high—and Uncanney Valley largely flops underneath it rather than sailing over it. So much has changed since 2001. It turns out for Morrison et al that the only thing that has changed is that they have at least one bonafide classic to their name.
Alas, Uncanney Valley is not that classic.
It doesn’t even come close, which feels quite uncanny.