By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Travis Morrison could have this job if he wanted it. If he felt like giving up his day (and night) job fronting The Dismemberment Plan, he could step into a gig talking and writing about music with no trouble, with little discernible change in his routine. It's something he would do, something he does, anyway. Few musicians pay as much attention to what's going on with music right now, what happened before, what's coming next than Morrison; other than, say, Elvis Costello or Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, most musicians have only working knowledge of the past, present and future of their own careers. Even though The Dismemberment Plan is nominally a rock band--akin to calling OutKast a hip-hop group: sort of true, but then again, not really--his sights are much broader than that. The Dismemberment Plan Web site, www.dismembermentplan.com, features a regularly updated list of the Ten Greatest Songs of All Time (Right Now)--usually compiled by Morrison, with the occasional two cents from one of his bandmates--that, as of this writing, featured selections by The Smiths, Gil Scott-Heron, Public Enemy, XTC, Paul Simon, De La Soul and Nation of Ulysses. Sometimes, it's 10 rap songs or old soul classics, all Steely Dan songs or a handful of tunes he just heard on the radio in Washington, D.C., where the Plan is based. Whatever. As Cameron Crowe said through golden god Russell Hammond in Almost Famous, Morrison digs music.
Or maybe he could be a sportswriter instead. Morrison has a better handle on what Michael Jordan's return to the NBA--and his arrival in D.C., specifically--means than any Sports Illustrated staffer. He can tell you why former Washington Wizard and recently traded Dallas Maverick Juwan Howard will never be happy anywhere he plays, why it's more fun watching the women of the WNBA than their male counterparts, why D.C. seat-fillers are still trying to figure out how to be fans of any team other than their beloved Redskins. "The Wizards? Nobody knows how to be a fan, because they've been an embarrassment," Morrison says. "They weren't even like the Chicago Cubs; for the last couple of years, they played basketball like they had really good dope at home. They just wanted to get the fuck off the court and blaze up. Either that or they've been blazing before they got there." OK, he probably won't be unseating Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon anytime soon, but admit it, he has an entertaining viewpoint. Dallas Morning News NBA beat writer Marc Stein won't explain why Mavs boss Mark Cuban has to be a dick and an asshole, but Morrison will. Gladly.
Though he could do both, Morrison (the son of journalists) has a different writing gig, one as shaped by reportage and personal insight as the best columnists. Over the course of three albums--1995's !, 1997's The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified and 1999's Emergency & I--Morrison mainly used his lyrics to, as he says, "document what's going on in the lives of people around me as much as I can." Those lives have included the drama queens and kings of "Academy Award" ("Showing them how you're dangling yourself from the cross/I'm all out of nails but here's your hammer, boss/And the Academy Award for ridiculous overacting goes to you," from ...is Terrified) and the damaged partygoers of "Gyroscope" ("If you spin fast enough, then maybe the broken pieces of your heart will stay together/But something I've seen lately makes me doubt it," off Emergency & I). While Morrison has usually included his own life in these song stories (check ...is Terrified's "The Ice of Boston," a little one-act about a lonely New Year's Eve, a few bottles of bubbly and a phone call from Mom), on Change--The Dismemberment Plan's fourth album, released late last year--he is pretty much the only one in the crosshairs.
"The lyrics are very introspective," Morrison admits, on the phone from his home in D.C. "In large part, the overall picture seems to be about detachment, the good and bad sides of that. And also, I'm 29. These lyrics were written in my late-20s, and that's something that just happens to a lot of people my age, to be honest...You know, you get to a certain age where you're just tired of bickering with this person over and over again. You reach that magic point where you're like, 'I can just go make new friends.' And all the old drama when you're a kid, it just starts to turn your stomach.
"Because you kind of realize you have to go in search of your own value system, and the only thing that will make you happy is constructing a coherent one and then striving to live up to it as much as you can," he continues. "At first it's lonely, and then it's liberating, and it happens to most anybody that doesn't have serious emotional problems. For all these reasons, yeah, the lyrics do definitely have a reflective bent. You could say they're too reflective. You could say they're kind of self-centered or just floating out there or, at the very least, they don't make for good entertainment. Yeah, that's perfectly game. There's plenty of records like that that I haven't enjoyed for exactly that reason. But I did it, and that's that."
Part of Morrison's newfound interest in self-examination comes from the band's work on Change or, at least, the decisions the group (bassist Eric Axelson, guitarist Jason Caddell and drummer Joe Easley) made after finishing Emergency & I. Recording Emergency & I--funded by a short-lived deal with Interscope Records that went teats up almost as quickly as it came about--was a difficult process, one that Morrison admits was salvaged only by producer J. Robbins' keen ear. ("He saw what was there before we could," he says.) The band upped the stakes on Change, resolving to push itself instead of letting someone else do it, to make a statement, not just an album. Robbins manned the controls again (along with Chad Clark), but this time he was there to record, not coach.
"It took awhile with [Change], kind of because we had to get our game up to a new level," Morrison says. "We had been coasting, to be totally honest. If we were gonna make a fourth record, we had to finally make a decision to be musicians. A lot of times with indie-rock bands, it's kind of this culture of excuse. Like, you're in this band because you're out of college; you don't know what the hell you're doing with yourself. You're not really focused on your craft or anything like that."
While committing to the idea of being musicians, the members of the band were less sure about being The Dismemberment Plan, at least the version that recorded Emergency & I and ...is Terrified and !, the group that treated songs as confrontations, choruses as slogans, melody and rhythm as weapons. That kind of aggression still had its appeal--and as it turned out, its place on Change--but the group wanted to explore different territory on its next album, something that wasn't being done to death by everyone else, something they hadn't done to death themselves. If nothing else, Morrison wanted to get away from "songs that are based on the Pixies principle of a bunch of noise and then a chorus and then a bunch of noise and you come flying out of the noise with the big hook."
"You turn on the radio and it's all so assertive," Morrison says. "Speaking as the singer of a band whose first two records were mind-bogglingly assertive and in-your-face and up-your-nose and all that, it seemed like there was a big space for records that aren't climbing all over you. And we've definitely climbed all over people; we did for years, and we will again." He laughs. "But for me, there's records I cherish that you could call them boring, if you felt like it, if you wanted to, if it wasn't what you wanted in that moment. You could call [Talking Heads'] Remain in Light boring. You could say it's sprawling. You could say it's unfocused. But you don't. You play it twice for some reason. It's like this world you can burrow into, that doesn't have any signposts or any directions about how you're supposed to feel while listening to it."
Like Remain in Light, there are moments on Change you could call boring, but you won't. Or you shouldn't, at any rate. There's "Come Home," which meanders along its way as Morrison sits at home on a rainy day, listening to "the rain rattle the leaves" and calling his dad "to maybe find some common sense." The carefully strummed guitars and shuffling beat handily corroborate Morrison's story, simmering for three minutes until all the tension and frustration boil over, the band cutting loose while Morrison wails, "I don't know," a lyric that might as well be the song's title. There's "Automatic," a stark acoustic number that devolves into a weary whistle of sound, while Morrison attempts to understand "the politics of common sense" and "the fireworks of bad ideas." And there's the album-opening "Sentimental Man," which sets its mood one line in ("There is no heaven and there is no hell"), Morrison coming to grips with his new worldview in a soft falsetto ("I'm an old testament kind of guy/I like my coffee black, and my parole denied") while doing his best to explain himself ("How do you know I'm not a sentimental man?/Is it really so hard to catch that vibe?/I guess it is").
That said, Change is not so far removed from Emergency & I's mission statement, picking up and extrapolating on that disc's quieter moments without stepping completely off the dance floor. "Face of the Earth" is a pristine example of The Dismemberment Plan's plan, a strategy where each instrument could be the most important part of the tune, where every verse and chorus could be a different song. "Pay for the Piano" is the rock answer to OutKast's "B.O.B.," a song that transcends its boundaries just because it does, not because it's trying to; while the band shreds the scenery, Morrison drops rhymes like a confident MC, showing off his lifelong love of hip-hop and recent love affair with Jay-Z singles. "The Other Side," on the other hand, gives the drummer some, a showcase for Easley to prove he can do with a drum kit what Roni Size and other drum 'n' bass jocks need machines for.
Morrison insists Change has been somewhat misunderstood since its release in October of last year, that it's more of a bookend to Emergency & I than a reaction to it. He, rightly, points out the disc is "a distillation of a certain thing we've done all along," different in the fact that it's not a sequel but, instead, a new film by the same director. It's not necessarily a case of an old dog learning a new trick; more like that dog getting better at the tricks he already knows.
"Generally, people have this perception--which is fair, because of how the album flows--that it's a pretty somnolent record, in that the stuff doesn't have the usual mania that we've presented on previous records and onstage," Morrison explains. "But to be totally honest, these songs come across as a manic jumbo, just like the other ones, live. And they fit into the flow of, like, a high-energy rock show really well. So, yeah, people ask me that, and I think it's based on the idea that we made this really, super-inward and not roof-raising album. But the songs, in the context of other songs, they work fine as palate cleansers throughout the show, and certain songs, like 'Time Bomb' and 'Face of the Earth' and, to a certain extent, 'Ellen and Ben,' get their own fairly rowdy energy going. So, it's pretty much the same as before." He laughs. "We tried to change, tried to make things different--it's not different." He laughs again. "I mean, it's not that different, you know? It's not like we made a polka record or a ska record or something crazy like that. We just made a more chill, patient record that explored kind of what we could do through more craftsmanship."