The Dismemberment Plan - Emergency & I (retro review) (Cover Artwork)

The Dismemberment Plan

Emergency & I (retro review) (1999)


If it's your first time, don't overthink it. Start with "You Are Invited."

You'll notice that the keyboard sounds ill. You'll notice that the singer seems off, sideways somehow, like he's talking through you. See, he's got an invitation that gets him into anything, anywhere. He goes to the disco and gets depressed. He goes to a party where he should be a pariah, no big deal. The keyboard gets sicker. There are now bugs crawling in your ears, smiles slipping like masks. The drums kick in, the chorus comes, like a blast of light. You are invited.

If that's too purple for you, I get it, but you must also understand that writing about this record is like trying to describe color. What makes it so indelible, despite having almost no obvious musical legacy in alternative rock and no clear descendants to its style, is the way it captures a specific kind of nervy, sweaty, uncomfortable loneliness that is born of early adulthood and either sheds itself over time or becomes a wicked, cursed armor. The Dismemberment Plan didn’t break the mold so much spring from the head of a heartbroken demi-god cursed to an MFA program in a costal city.

Your head probably goes to lyrics. Which is not the wrong impulse, because they are remarkable, waffling wilding between poetry, idiot savantry, dumb, brilliance, dumbly brilliant. Here's a taste from "The City," the album's most immediately accessible song: "The parks lay empty like my unmade bed / The streets are silent like my lifeless telephone / This is where I live / but I've never felt less at home." Setting aside the vocal performance, which is as polarizing as you're likely to find this side of, say, David Byrne, you can see the gamut of talent at play in a simple cutlet. It's brilliant, it’s obvious, it’s trite, and its evocative enough that you can almost hold it.

I fear I'm making this album sound unreachable, and it really isn't. Anyone interested in Fugazi or Q and not U will hear the same foundational elements at play with The Dismemberment Plan; an interest in groove over drive, a jazz-and-punch rhythm section that acts as the ballast for an increasing theoretical guitar, an interest in electronic elements grounded in a post-punk tradition. You can listen to something like "Back and Forth" and just dance, without having to let lyrics like "You'll always be my hero even if I never see you again" settle onto your chest and somehow implant itself in memories you've always had. Hell, you can just let something like "I Love a Magician" rock you without engaging deeper at all.

But what makes this album worth revisiting time and again is how much there is to engage with. Emergency & I fully realizes just-smart-enough, just-sad-enough young adult loneliness, both in text and music. In “Girl o’Clock,” the narrator is having a sex-less panic attack as the toms cascade and the bass growls. “8 ½ Minutes” takes a riff on the end of the world and broadcasts its with a whining klaxon that makes the speculative fiction feel real. The only moment of disconnect is the opening song, “A Life of Possibilities,” in which the triumph of the music doesn’t match the warning of the message; If you can do anything, you’re going to leave people behind. If you can be anything, you can’t be mad at people who resent you because they can’t. If that seems a little smug, and a little proud of itself, and a little sad, that’s because it is. You are invited.