And Then They Were Doing This: Looking Back on the Dismemberment Plan's 'Change'
Talking to Travis Morrison about his major label album that almost was.
Reunited indie rock heroes the Dismemberment Plan recently revisited a knotty moment in their history as they revived their acclaimed one-time swan song Change for its inaugural vinyl release. Once critical darlings of an East Coast math rock explosion, the Plan disbanded just in time for indie rock’s mid-2000’s assault on the mainstream, only to resurface in the last few years for a much needed second act. Hard copies of the band’s best works evaporated in their long absence, but a methodical reissue campaign seeks to rectify that. It may seem unusual for any reasonably well-regarded Pitchfork-era indie rock album to see its first vinyl pressing over a decade on, but it was not wholly uncommon for a band of the Dismemberment Plan’s stature to put an album out exclusively on CD in the years before iTunes democratized the digital music distribution and music aficionados reacted by lionizing tapes and records. Fans’ preferred formats have shifted. “There is a demand for music in the hand, not in the cloud,” D-Plan singer-songwriter Travis Morrison says in a brief chat before a handful of shows celebrating the reissue.
Change was originally released on Jawbox alums Bill Barbot and Kim Coletta’s DeSoto Records in October of 2001, after a jarring series of heartening highs and crushing setbacks. The Plan was Wilco before Wilco; like Jeff Tweedy and company, whose Reprise deal imploded during the recording of their 2002 classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the Dismemberment Plan was signed and ultimately dropped by Interscope around 1999’s Emergency & I, one of the masterpieces of ‘90s Washington DC’s punk funk post-hardcore freakout, as industry-wide, piracy-fueled budget cuts caused labels to offload promising acts it no longer seemed lucrative to promote. The band came back to DeSoto with the masters for the new album, Interscope’s parting gift. By decade’s end the Dismemberment Plan had seen both ends of rock’s promise, and the music they’d make in the wake of their windfall carried a palpable unrest.
The new album introduced a mellower, more reflective Dismemberment Plan. You could hear adulthood setting in as the restless twentysomething ennui of Emergency cooled to a quiet dread. “It sounds like postcards from the edge of thirty, thematically,” Travis says in retrospect. Change was moody and methodical in all the spots Emergency might’ve just seethed with jerky youth energy. The set opens with “Sentimental Man,” a midtempo vamp that channels the stately afro-punk strut of prime Talking Heads, and peels straight into “Face of the Earth,” slower and quieter but only as it boils over into a raucous chorus and burns out on its own rage. Change reveled in the cathartic payoff of a loud rock chorus. Earlier Dismemberment Plan records threw everything they had at the listener out front, but these songs made them wait, made them beg for it.
Change’s moodiness wasn’t all structural; these songs fixated on relationships in varying stages of disrepair, but in typical Travis Morrison fashion, fantastical plot devices mix things up. “As kisses go,” begins “Face of the Earth,” “it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.” His mate is then terrifyingly vacuumed off the planet into the cosmos, and he’s left to grapple with the jarring loss. “Superpowers” describes a bottomless emotional reserve as if it were an attribute of a comic book hero. A string of bad luck and depression becomes a “Secret Curse.” Beneath the science fiction airs there was always an exhausted character or couple floating discomfortingly adrift, as on album closer “Ellen and Ben,” which catalogues the demise of a relationship between inseparable lovers, from good times to a rough spot that leads to their eventual estrangement. What we couldn’t know about Change’s stories of resignation at the time is that the union at the center of them all was, itself, beginning to dissolve.
The sessions were trying, and Travis ultimately wasn’t happy with his writing. “I think I don’t like it because I can hear the wheels coming off the band halfway through writing it,” Travis told fans in a Reddit AMA celebrating last fall’s Uncanney Valley. “There is some filler.” By 2003 the band had amicably split, and by 2011, reunited for a second go-round, but for the better part of a decade, Change felt like the Dismemberment Plan’s last will and testament. “We were stubborn and maybe a little overly self-critical and worried about doing the ‘wrong thing,’ and I think we kind of backed ourselves in a corner.” Nowadays he’s less critical, though no less whimsically self-deprecating: “There is some melodrama there that used to make me want to put a dark cloth on my face, but now I accept it. Melodrama happens.”
Late in the week of the reissue’s release the Plan treated a rapt audience of nostalgic indie rock beardos at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom to a set heavy on Change cuts not routinely visited on tour. If there was an ounce of doubt about the strength of these songs it died there. At Bowery, the Change songs leveraged the manic fury of ‘90s favorites “Girl O’Clock” and “OK, Joke’s Over” (which Travis peppered with an unhinged bit of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”) and the mannered maturity of Uncanney Valley cuts “Living in Song” and “Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer.” Where these songs once hung over the Dismemberment Plan discography like a tombstone, they could now be seen as a bridge between two very different periods in the band’s journey.
Three years into the Dismemberment Plan’s unlikely second run Travis attributes the endurance of the bond to a calculated spontaneity. Asked what’s on the horizon for the band coming into a new year, he can’t say. “We have a strict No Ideas, No Planning approach. The key is that it can’t be anyone’s idea. Ideas are shot on sight, but spontaneous collective action does occur. ‘And Then They Were Doing This?’ will be the name of our oral history book.”
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