As one of the best post-punk bands to come out of the D.C. scene in recent years, the Dismemberment Plan has always faced ridiculously high expectations. And that has never been more true than now, with their fourth album, Change, coming on the heels of 1999’s critically lauded Emergency & I. The pressure on the band to match that work’s sweeping eclecticism and heartfelt songwriting must have been tremendous, but you’d never know it from listening to Change.
Every bit as assured and powerful as its predecessor, Change forsakes Emergency’s wild mood swings and occasional spastic breaks, instead aiming to create what frontman Travis Morrison has described as a “late-night record.” There’s no insane punk rock blast like the last album’s “I Love a Magician” here, and though longtime fans will probably be gasping in terror at that statement, the band’s newfound restraint isn’t a bad thing.
Road-testing this material before recording has also, as always, worked in the band’s favor. Songs like the tormented “The Face of the Earth” and the subdued pop of “Sentimental Man” easily match the Plan’s usual high level of sophistication and carefully honed melodies.
In fact, this album seems infinitely more planned (no pun intended) than Emergency, and certainly more so than their previous efforts. “Time Bomb” is one of the band’s best songs, with gritty guitars below Morrison’s warnings to an ex-lover: “I am a time bomb/ and I lay forgotten at the bottom of your heart/ I’m fine/ ticking away the years/ ’till I blow your world apart.” Joe Easley and Eric Axelson’s complex rhythms provide a lively and ever-changing base for the song.
“Secret Curse,” one of the more uptempo tracks, features rapid, hip-hop inspired vocals on the tension-building verses before the blowout rock of the choruses. “Pay for the Piano” is a more typical rocker from the Plan, with Jason Caddell’s adept guitar backed by squelching keyboards and a tight rhythm.
Much of the rest of the album is more laidback, though. On “Automatic,” Morrison’s rich vocals are accompanied only by a slow acoustic-sounding guitar. “Superpowers” starts with distorted, sustained guitar and the steady drums mixed low. The spotlight on the track is obviously on Morrison’s lyrics, which are as incisive and haunting as ever: “I have seized with the ice cold rage of a lover betrayed/ … I have cried so hard for hours and not known why/ I never do/ I’ve been knocked down flat by joy/ that makes my face pulse like a sugar high.” His emotional delivery makes the words even more convincing.
“Following Through,” a chiming pop song, has a lovely bittersweet feel that makes it another highlight, but really it’s hard to pick out the best songs. Change is the first Plan album that doesn’t have a single inferior track. In fact, the band’s songwriting has been steadily improving and developing with each release, and here it’s reached a new pinnacle.
With complex song structures, affecting lyrics, and the tightest rhythm section in indie rock, this should be the album of the year. Like all Plan albums, it’s a grower; each subsequent listen reveals new facets of its beauty.
Archived article by Ed Howard