The Plan loses its way

By Jon Garrett

Not everyone can be a good football player. I know because I nearly killed myself trying. I was right on track to graduate from flag to tackle games when a very angry and very large 10-year-old deposited the entire weight of his frame directly on my head — and that was after he had clotheslined me. Following that experience, my parents tried to convince me that maybe football was better left to the kids that didn’t have knobby knees and toothpick-sized necks. Unfortunately, it still took a broken arm and several stitches before I heeded their advice and picked up a tennis racket. And while I never had the same sort of passion for tennis as I did for football, I fared much better. My tall and lanky build, which had caused me nothing but pain in football, gave me a distinct advantage in my new sport. By the time I was 12, I had become one of the top 150 players in the state. Tennis was clearly a better fit all the way around. Although I never stopped following football, I decided that I was much better off as a spectator than as a tackling dummy.

I imagine musicians must have the same sort of dilemmas. Shit, I know they do. Musicians profess respect for each other all the time, but most prefer to stick to the style they excel at rather than risk a colossal failure. During an aftershow interview at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, Snoop Dogg gave props to Michael Jackson through thick cumulus clouds of pot smoke. He said he loved his songs and his dance moves, but we all know that while Snoop may indeed love Jacko’s style, he’s not exactly about to give up the reefer for a glittery glove. He’ll leave that tall order for Usher. Likewise, Jackson’s not likely to deliver any raps about ganja and hoes getting’ it on in his bedroom anytime in the near future. These artists know their respective strengths, and although they may like other music, they’ll gladly remain fans.

But sometimes, against better judgment, artists do pull Michael Jordans — and the batting averages are not pretty. Remember when U2 tried to reinvent themselves as a techno-rock act? Yeah, that worked well. Or Billy Joel’s pathetic attempt at classical music? How about MC Hammer, er sorry, Hammer, as a gangsta rapper? No one was having any of that. More often than not, these experiments become cautionary tales, examples of why it pays to stick to what you do best. However, occasionally, these types of detours can be fulfilling in their own right and introduce the artist’s fan base to genres they might not be aware of. Radiohead’s Kid A performed just such a feat.

When Voices interviewed lead singer of the Dismemberment Plan Travis Morrison this past summer just as the band was wrapping the sessions for their new album, Change, we asked whether he had ever considered writing short stories or books. He wisely replied that penning lyrics was quite different than writing a book. It would be like Ben Johnson trying to run the marathon, he said. Morrison admitted that he had dabbled a bit in playwriting. That, he said, was closer in spirit to lyrics, with its emphasis on rhythm. Clearly, Morrison was a man in touch with his strengths and limitations. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of his band’s new album.

Change, as its title forebodes, heralds a departure for The Dismemberment Plan. The group that built its reputation on ferocious, energetic live shows and pop-infused nuggets of indie rock has decided to tone things down in favor of gentle splashes of guitar and Morrison’s preening vocals. The songs are connected both literally and in spirit, sharing a sort of hazy gloom. It is very much a mood record, something to address a very specific frame of mind. And the lyrics match the musical sentiment, communicating a vague alienation and sadness.

While it’s not exactly a jump on the level of an MC Hammer to gangsta, the shift in tone from Emergency & I (their last full-length) to Change is certainly enough to raise an eyebrow. After all, this is a band that did what they did exceptionally well. And what they did was put out one of the most sophisticated and rocking pop records of all time. And it was fun to listen to! Their live performance staked their claim even more emphatically, as they left thousands of panting, danced-out indie kids in their wake. Change, on the other hand, cuts off rocking at the knees. We do get fleeting glimpses of past glories and a throwback entitled “Timebomb,” which was actually one of the first songs they wrote for the new album. But otherwise, icy detachment is the order of the day. Songs speed up, slow down, slide and zigzag, but never actually dare to rock. Instead, Morrison’s vocals are pushed to the forefront and the guitars are left to play a supporting role. It’s like robbing Allen Iverson of his crossover or Kevin Brown of his slider. Sure, Brown would still be a great pitcher — even without his trusty weapon, but do you really want to watch him throw knuckleballs all day?

The same can be said of Change. While it’s certainly interesting to hear the Plan incorporate strains of soul and explore a significantly muted approach, it’s also incredibly frustrating because you know that they’re holding back their true talent. Part of the problem, I admit, is in my own expectations since I’ve memorized practically every last note of Emergency & I. I can hear where a song like “Sentimental Man” would have gone if it had been written for Emergency instead of Change. I can hear the huge pop chorus in my head — even though it never actually comes on this album. A few songs that buck expectations would have been welcome, but an album full of them seems downright foolish. Even a song like “Following Through,” which is absolutely amazing live, seems strangely and unnecessarily distant on record.

To reiterate, Change is not a bad album, but it’s an album that would have been better left to another artist. Changing, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing, and I’m hardly one to advocate that any band stop experimenting. But there’s something to be said for preserving your best attributes, to change in a way that retains the band’s strengths. All I’m saying is that there’s got to be a better way for them to push the boundaries of their sound. With any luck, Change will be the broken arm that forces them to reconsider their options. If I can give football up, maybe there’s hope for the Plan yet.