Before the band announced its first reunion tour in 2010, The Dismemberment Plan always seemed flip about convention. Its first four albums, released between 1995 and 2001, oozed a carefree moxie: They thoroughly screwed with time signatures, layered jagged guitars over funky bass lines, and careened from screaming to shouting to sweet crooning, amounting to a controlled chaos that seemed both tuneful and mismatched.
In the republic of The Dismemberment Plan, mania reigned alongside euphoria. Its joy, if you listened close enough, began to sound like panic, and even its panic seemed kind of psyched. Travis Morrison wrote lyrics gripped by uncertainty, anxiety, and alienation, and the band’s music tended to mimic that jittery, propulsive tension. But The Dismemberment Plan also excelled at sounding effortless, like band practice for them was actually fun, something like a loosey-goosey karaoke session.
Now, 12 years after the post-punk quartet released its last album, D-Plan has re-emerged with Uncanney Valley, a full-length whose misspelled name seems studiously anti-convention, like the band often did. But they’re lobbing smaller spitballs this time. Like before, the post-punk quartet’s members sound uninterested in predictability and unwilling to make music for anyone but themselves—not even their cultish fans, who proudly sport tattoos of the artwork for Emergency & Iand carry homemade membership cards to the human race—but on this album, its most straightforward pop record to date, they deploy their antics much more selectively.
It’s clear that D-Plan still has a penchant for the unusual (the cartoonish, whistling percussion on “Waiting” is strange and beguiling), and Morrison’s thoughtful lyrics continue to read like passages from a book sandwiched between choruses, but the wacky factor has been absorbed into a somewhat mannered, self-possessed songwriting style. On Uncanney Valley, the group splits the difference between the toned-down energy of 2001’s Change and the grown-up pop rock bassist Eric Axelson made in his brief time as a member of the unfortunately overlooked Milwaukee outfit Maritime. The spazziness of 1995’s ! is still there, but mostly in patches.
Without the wild acrobatics of yore, the sunny Uncanney Valley does drag at points (“White Collar White Trash” is fairly rote, and opener “No One’s Saying Nothing” is a bit bumpy), and Morrison’s lyrics can veer too far into cornball territory (the lovely-dovey “Lookin’” is particularly saccharine). But the same freewheeling, uplifting spirit remains intact, filtered through experience and wisdom. In fact, Uncanney Valley is, in a way, a dad-rock album. On standout tracks like the moody yet effervescent “Invisible” and the slinky jam “Living In Song,” the band hints at all the anguish of youth, but with a calm reserve. There’s a bright, uplifting swing to the tunes, even on “Invisible,” when Morrison sings of feeling alone among millions in New York City: “I just disappear into the night,” he sings, “and I watch the faces in the passing trains/And I see a sweet smile and it’s going my way.”