The ’90s ended when The Dismemberment Plan released Emergency & I. That’s almost literally true—it came out on Oct. 26, 1999. But in a more symbolic way, when Emergency arrived upon the eve of Y2K, it was abundantly clear that this Washington, D.C. band wasn’t particularly interested in revisiting any of the tried-and-true elements of the past and were, in fact, kicking open the doors to a new decade. Past albums ! and The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified sufficiently established the band as post-hardcore and new wave-influenced iconoclasts, going spastic with Casio keyboards and funky rhythms, but as 1999’s sun was setting and computers were plotting their revenge on the earth, The Dismemberment Plan struck first and set their own musical machines haywire.
On Emergency & I seemingly ordinary instruments and melodies are tweaked in such a way to suggest that any ordinary means of playing rock music has since become obsolete, and it’s The Dismemberment Plan’s job to reformat. Weaned on the D.C. post-hardcore scene, The D-Plan built their sound around a framework of abrasive punk rock a la Jawbox, Fugazi or Shudder To Think, while spiking it with Brainiac-style spazz-outs and a melodic sheen a la Built to Spill or Modest Mouse. The end result is a little bit of all of these bands and none of these bands combined—if “post-indie” rock was a real genre, this is probably what it would sound like.
In The Dismemberment Plan’s world, a Led Zeppelin-esque anthem like “What Do You Want Me To Say?” should only reach its soaring chorus via wiry combinations of dissonant riffs and melodically-matching vocals. Ambient noises, funk bass, furious drums and darkly humorous chants of “red wire/ right temple/ black wire/ left temple” drive the intro to “Memory Machine.” Almost four whole minutes of the nearly five-minute “You Are Invited” consist of little more than Travis Morrison’s voice and a basic drum machine beat. And maniacal stuttering, billowing synth samples and skronky guitar screeches provide a very unsettling and completely awesome verse to “Girl O’Clock.” By anyone’s measure, this is really, really weird territory.
But for all of the melodic devices gone schizo, judging by Morrison’s lyrics, it’s the humans that have truly disconnected. Much in the same way that Wes Anderson’s films are ultimately about the interaction between characters, Emergency & I is about the failings of interpersonal relationships and the need, sometimes desperately, for human contact. Fittingly, it begins with complete isolation in “A Life of Possibilities,” as Morrison sings “you dig down, underground now, through the soil, through the cooling clay/ as the din fades above you, you’re moving, you’re secret, you’re nowhere, it’s all good.” But ultimately, that need for isolation is overtaken by a painful longing, and as the song escalates to a rocking climax, Morrison sings the devastating truth, “don’t be surprised when they don’t remember you, or simply don’t want to.”
In its fits of spastic noise-wave, “Memory Machine” presents a futuristic utopia where pain is cured by pleasant bouts of nostalgia, and “Spider In the Snow” presents the suggestion that “the only thing worse than bad memories is no memories at all” over a hazy, melancholy jangle. With its Bonham-like thwack, “What Do You Want Me To Say?” juxtaposes a frustrating lovers quarrel over one of their hardest rocking tracks: “there was a time when you could make me laugh at will/ and you can do it still/ but never is it for the right reasons.” Heartbreak becomes dance fodder in “Gyroscope,” sex is sleight of hand in the furious “I Love A Magician,” and lives are re-evaluated in apocalyptic jam “8 1/2 Minutes.” And I don’t even know what the hell is going on in the deceptively serene “The Jitters”: “plastic cube filled with pus that sits atop my supervisor’s desk…stolen cars in a heap, a naked body on the neighbor’s yard.”
The emotional climax of the record is “You Are Invited,” Morrison singing in three separate choruses “you are invited, by anyone to do anything,” with the meaning tweaked just a little bit each time, ultimately spilling into an unlikely positive message. The sentiment is far less optimistic on “The City,” as perfect a pop song as they’ve written, somehow juxtaposing loneliness with a furious need to shake it. And no moment on this album is as heart-stopping as Morrison’s ascending cry of “all…I…ever…say…now…is…good…BYE!” To follow this up with the epileptic sex craze of “Girl O’Clock” may seem perverse, but I say it’s genius. Although whenever I introduce the band to anyone, this is the song I start with. Aside from being my favorite, it’s a true test—if you aren’t won over by Morrison’s stammered “if I don’t have s-s-s-sex by the end of the week, I’m g-g-g-going to die,” then you just won’t get this band.
That Emergency & I ends with “Back and Forth” is telling of just what kind of band The D-Plan was. It’s a party song, a funk jam, a call to throw one’s arms in the air, and after all of the conflicting emotions and awkward encounters throughout the record, it’s important to bring everyone together one last time. And going to a Plan show was like being part of one big, bizarre, nerdy and super fun family for just a few hours. People danced on stage, everyone knew every song, and hipster posturing was completely unacceptable. I have yet to find a band that captures that sense of fun, but even if I can’t see it happen again, Emergency & I is the memory machine that recreates that unforgettable experience every time it’s fired up.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.