Emergency & I has endured for two decades, despite concerns that Morrison’s well had run dry.
What was going through the minds of the Dismemberment Plan when they made Emergency & I? Like an alternate universe Pavement (if they embraced their weird guitar noise-pop rather than taming it for Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain), the third Dismemberment Plan album actively wrestles against categorization at every turn, with even its tamest songs bursting with musical wizardry.
You could see the signs early on. Their first two albums were bizarre slabs of post-hardcore in their own rights. The band honed their aesthetic on sophomore record The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified, giving every track a lightning in a bottle feeling as though no song’s circuitry could be replicated again. It’s one of the most inspirational albums in the indie rock canon and a defiantly weird listen, which makes it so easy to dissect. Each track is the purest realization of what front man Travis Morrison wanted. Synth gurgles carefully infect every song; on the madcap “Girl O’clock,” Morrison shouts, atop math-rock drum beats, a cartoonish, shivering stutter, “And ya don’t kn-kn-kn-know th-th-th-the ice c-c-c-cold vice that grips my head/ And ya don’t kn-kn-kn-know th-th-th-the burning, th-th-the burning I feel when I try to get out of bed.”
Emergency is full of such hyper-infectious moments. Whether it’s the intermittent falsetto on “A Life of Possibilities,” or the moment where Morrison holds a note on the word “Gone” until it collides with the cymbals on “The City” or the gasp for air following the second chorus of “Girl O’clock,” there’s something to get addicted to on every track, and every member of the band delivers a fix: The whirring keyboards of “The City,” Eric Axelson’s menacing bass on “Memory Machine, or the staccato guitar stabs of “What Do You Want Me To Say?” will lodge themselves in your head for days.
Morrison is a songwriter who borders on stream of consciousness on a regular basis, and he’s more adept at spastic delivery than anybody in his field. Here, rebirth, stagnation, and release all get heavy exploration. Opener “A Life of Possibilities” drops us straight into that world with a character literally digging themselves a hole to escape the world they know, then discovering the sorrow that comes from actually abandoning it. On “Spider in the Snow,” stuck with the “Same VCR, the same cats,” he elegantly distills that feeling of spinning your wheels: “How can a body move the speed of light/ And still find itself in such a rut?” while the skittering “Gyroscope” presents the anxiety of a party where seeing your “ex-thing” can make the room bend and reel.
This is an indie rock record, though, so the band delivers their fair share of breakup songs, the best of which is album standout “The City.” Morrison can understand why his ex bailed on their town: “I’m not unsympathetic/ I see why you left/ There’s no one to know/ There’s nothing to do/ The city’s been dead/ Since you’ve been gone.”
“There are folks that think to have a soul you’ve got to suffer/ Well lately I’ve had my RDA of that,” Morrison sings partway through “Memory Machine,” which explores eternal life and our persistent desire to wipe away our sorrows. Morrison isn’t interested in anyone wallowing in their suffering. Unlike the heart-on-sleeve indie-emo of the time, Morrison (then 27) is no lovelorn sad sack, but has the disaffection and boredom of someone in their late 20s trying desperately to figure out what life and love is all about.
That tone is why Emergency & I has endured for two decades, despite concerns that Morrison’s well had run dry (see: the highly-divisive solo album Travistan or the fantastically-mark missing 2013 reunion album Uncanney Valley). It still taps into the post-adolescence malaise that settles into late-20-somethings as they search for meaning and pairs it with careening sonic twists and turns that by all accounts should not work. They view the malaise for exactly what it is, and deliver it with a sonic backdrop that perfectly mirrors the internal chaos that those feelings conjure.