Getting older sucks. There are more responsibilities, everything feels more important yet blander at the same time, and no one’s allowed to show their real feelings. And what are those feelings? Self-loathing, emptiness, nostalgia, disappointment, exhaustion, and longing. It’s hard to express those feelings without sounding corny or whiny, especially when singing about it.
According to The Dismemberment Plan, the Washington D.C. indie rock quartet, the trick is to sing with the same attitude as your fellow 20-something: like your hands are in your pockets and you’re barely making eye contact with the adult you’re talking to.
The Dismemberment Plan thrived on the awkwardness of young manhood, the jangly nervousness of trying to make an impression on society while dealing with the tragic irony of being introverted. The band’s first two records – ! and The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified – were unhinged and chaotic expression of snarky young rage played with math-rock accuracy by Eric Axelson, Jason Caddell, Joe Easley, and Travis Morrison. With 1999’s Emergency & I, the band smoothed out their sound to make a series of declarative statements on losing yourself in adulthood (“A Life of Possibilities”), the brutal honesty of accepting failure (“What Do You Want Me to Say”) and the regret of not having what once was loved (“The City”). They were never superstars, not even in their own scene, but The Dismemberment Plan connected with all the right people from Death Cab for Cutie to Jimmy Eat World. But what happens with the energy dies down? What’s still there?
Change, the band’s fourth album that turned 15 this weekend, is the icy chill of growing up and maturity creeping up on the band. Though it lacks the manic energy of previous records, Change feels more focused in both its music and writing, like everything became clear to the band. The 11 tracks feel more crafted and mood-orientented, like the band is addressing their inner fears head-on. The Plan’s greatest weapon has always been the tight and concise rhythm section of Axelson on bass and Easley on drums, locking into each other and hitting notes like clockwork. From the tight backbeat on “The Face of the Earth,” “Superpowers,” “Following Through,” “Time Bomb,” and “Ellen and Ben,” to the controlled chaos of notes on “The Other Side,” and “Pay for the Piano.” The real wizard of the dup is Easley, mixing jazzy speed and accuracy with a heavy rock edge as he hits the skins. Axelson fills in the blanks on the stop-start beat of “Ellen and Ben” and “The Face of the Earth,” a punctuation ending every beat.
There are no real flourishes of guitar work on Change, it’s merely an additional pillar to each song’s construction. Guitars are either sparingly strummed on tracks like “Sentimental Man,” “The Face of the Earth,” and “Ellen and Ben,” or merely picked at in the same tune and form on “Time Bomb,” “Following Through,” and “Pay for the Piano.” The “guitar solo” on “Superpowers” is actually just jangled plucking of strings that eventually blurs together. The only real expansive guitar work here is on “The Other Side,” where effects are used to make the guitar echo and stretch out for an almost gothic atmosphere. The keyboard is actually a much more prominent instrument on Change, setting a spacier theme for the album.
Despite the shining opening sound of “Sentimental Man,” Change starts out on a rather grim line (“There is no heaven and there is no hell/No limbo in-between — I think it’s all a lie/Just a white light out to velvet black/And back to neutral gray — that’s all when we die”). The lyrics are well-detailed and stick to not being too ethereal. “The Face of the Earth” is a song that starts with an awkward encounter at a party (“As kisses go/It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary/The alkaline lips/The fingers hooked around my belt”) to finding her dead (“I never really knew the way she lived her life/I tried a couple numbers but they never called back/I didn’t know her family or friends at all/With no one to call, summer turned to fall”), yet Morrison sings with such a disconnect like he’s an observer even though he experienced the event itself. Morrison remains a vessel for introverts listening in, whether they feel the despair of “Superpowers” (“I’ve been lost in a cold white space as an arrogant dream storms in from another life”) of the lost cause in “Following Through (“It coulda been good/It coulda been something special/It may have had real potential/It never could show”).
Change was D-Plan’s last album before breaking up for 12 years, but it makes for an interesting place to end their hot streak on.