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"Uncanney Valley"

The Dismemberment Plan – Uncanney Valley
10 October 2013, 10:30 Written by Thomas Hannan

The temptation to slap a big juicy 10/10 on this before I’d even heard it was strong, and remains with me despite living with Uncanney Valley (sic) for a while, and reconciling myself with the idea that, in honesty, it’s not worthy. The disappointment I felt in not being able to bequeath the title of perfection to a record by The Dismemberment Plan was eventually tempered with the realisation that, hey, I’m not listening to any normal new record here. It’s like someone once told me of Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy – “it’s not like reviewing an album, it’s like reviewing a unicorn – I’m just surprised it exists”.

As unicorns go, it’s not bad, this one. Quite a looker. It could sure have been a lot worse – after all, the same influential publication who justifiably gave full marks to 1999’s classic Emergency & I also damned their singer Travis Morrison’s first solo foray away from The ‘Plan with a frankly spiteful 0.0 score that he’s since blamed for practically killing his career. That Uncanney Valley – the Washington D.C. band’s first record in 12 years, and first since reforming - sits somewhere between perfection and worthlessness is one thing, the fact that it leans quite so heavily towards the former is another. After all, as the Pixies have recently proven, making a comeback record is not as easy as Dinosaur Jr. made it look.

Other than the fact that they’d set the bar so dizzyingly high for themselves on their last two (three, four if you’re being very kind) records, that initial feeling of this being something of a let-down sprung from one concern. A lyrical concern. As in, I couldn’t listen to many of its songs without cringing at some of Morrison’s turns of phrase, what with their being either horribly straightforward (“Invisible, yeah that’s me/if you look then you’ll see right through me” he sings, over-defining invisibility on a song itself called ‘Invisible’) or irritatingly, knowingly ‘wacky’ (“You press the space bar enough, and cocaine comes out – I really like this computer!” on ‘No One’s Saying Nothing’). He’s certainly a different lyricist from the man who penned a line like “plastic cup full of puss that sits atop my supervisor’s desk” and left it open to the listener to discern their own meaning from it – on Uncanney Valley, it’s rarely less than glaringly obvious exactly what Morrison is on about, and initially, you can really wish that wasn’t the case.

I left the record for a while, deciding to approach it again only when I could find a new angle. The one I chose was the same one I use when listening to New Order – pay no attention to the lyrics (pretend you’re foreign or something), concentrate on the music, and you might just enjoy yourself after all. And the most overwhelming, heart warming, joyous thing about Uncanney Valley is that the music on it is amazing. Like, really amazing.

Clunky wordplay aside, ‘Nobody’s Saying Nothing’ is a tremendous opener full of pitched up guitars and melodions that’s jauntier than perhaps anything they’ve ever written – until they follow it with ‘Waiting’, a song so happy it can best be summed up by closing one’s eyes and grinning. Letting its melodious gladness wash over you actually helps the lyrics sit more comfortably as well, elevating this from a song I found initially tolerable to one I now count amongst the record’s best. ‘Invisible’ too, that chorus line aside, is a wonderful and surprising turn, all weird string loops and jagged guitars battling away as Morrisson dissects modern urban living with fantastic wryness and self deprecation . Oh, and Joe Easly’s drumming remains absolutely fucking insanely brilliant. Some things haven’t changed.

The more straightforward, D-Plan-by-numbers ‘Living In Song’ begins a slight mid album lull continued by the open letter to Morrison’s wife that is ‘Lookin’’, a song containing too many heart-on-sleeve platitudes to list here, but one that is at least nothing if not bracingly honest. And perhaps this new found lyrical straightforwardness is to be admired? Maybe it’s braver to tell the world that, hey, you love your wife than it is to talk of a plastic cup full of puss? It’s certainly more relatable, and I’m beginning to believe mass communication is the point of this new lyrical strategy. And I’m beginning to kinda like it.

Even so, it’s a shame the most basic, often squirmish lyrics come on what are musically some of the catchiest, outright finest numbers of their career. ‘Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer’ is the biggest offender/success in this respect, as though the plot of the song is pretty much summed up by its title – and doesn’t need the three and a half minutes of lyrical exploration it’s provided – the vocal melodies (which Morrison can still conjure up like an absolute wizard) and guitar interplay are guitar pop perfection up there with ‘The Ice Of Boston’ or ‘The City’. Furthermore, despite the fact that infectious closer ‘Let’s Just Go To The Dogs Tonight’ sounds like it was written in a band meeting under agenda item ‘We need a song to end the album’, it serves its purpose as one very well, and if it wasn’t for the regrettable call and response section at its end, I’d probably be really looking forward to it being the final song at their UK gigs in next month.

The best thing here though – a song with which I can find no faults, only more and more positives – is ‘Mexico City Christmas’, a tune with an urgency to it that they’ve never displayed before with quite this level of ferocity. It’s melodically super strong, but also possesses a mean spirit that, if let out of the bottle a bit more often, could have made Uncanney Valley a truly great return rather than just a pretty good one.

But a Dismemberment Plan album that, after a 12 year wait, is actually a pretty good one? I’ll clutch that thing to my bosom and love it just as much as its siblings, even if they do have a little more to say for themselves.

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