A new album from The Dismemberment Plan after over 10 years of stasis, through many layers of a slowly growing legend, did not seem like something that would or should ever happen. The woulds have obviously been answered by the release of the band’s fifth studio album, Uncanney Valley, following a few successful “comeback”-style gigs. The shoulds part, though, is heartbreakingly up for debate.
The Dismemberment Plan’s singular sound has always been the convergence of ethereal noises, frumpy synths, jagged guitars and surgeon-precise drums sliding beneath the quirkily honest/bizarro vocal stylings of Travis Morrison. From the get-go, Uncanney Valley maintains that cross-section, with Morrison’s opening line, “You hit the space bar enough, and cocaine comes out!/I really like this computer!” The song is flanked by fussy, outer-space synth moodscapes and guitars are barely audible, which is not sonic terrain that the band would be unlikely to explore. That sentiment rings especially true when Morrison shifts keys in the chorus, invoking some of the brilliant moments on tunes from the band’s classic 1999 LP, Emergency and I.
But the conversational tone of Morrison’s delivery—somewhere between a lecture and a white-boy rap—tends to take more of the spotlight away from his band’s storied chops. Morrison is a great songwriter, and despite a couple of passable solo efforts, his weird world coalesces with that of the rest of the band’s so seamlessly it’s spooky. But there’s just not as much to sink your teeth into on songs as obviously Morrison-centric as “Waiting,” which flits in a fantasy-disco-pop patina that seems lightyears away from what The Dismemberment Plan might have geared toward had they not disbanded in 2003.
Nobody sounds like The Dismemberment Plan; it’s just that The Dismemberment Plan has never really sounded like this. They’ve always toed the line of too-strange, but somehow always reeled in the carnival at the exact right moment, yielding these powerful moments of anthemic post-rock that leveled the listener. Anyone who’s seen them live should have left feeling slightly violated; the band appearing hypnotized, depraved. Within that context, the closest Uncanney Valley comes to reigniting that old flame is on “Invisible,” a dark number with lots of repetitive instrumental loops, Morrison singing, “I’m invisible, yeah that’s me/if you look then you’ll see right through me/some day I’m gonna make my move/what have I got to lose?” This tune could have been a b-side on 2001’s brilliant Change.
There are moments of the grandiose elements that made the band a road-dog staple 10 years ago, as on the peppy “Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer” or “Let’s Just Go to the Dogs.” The artistic liberty of neglecting to ease anyone in to a new incarnation of the same band is wholly admirable. The result, however, is pretty uneven.