The Dismemberment Plan’s first official album in more than ten years has arrived.
Partisan Records, 2013
7.5 / 10
The “uncanny valley” describes not a place but an idea, one with both negative connotations and a backhanded compliment to our ability to perceive things: we’ll accept crude and extremely convincing replications of humanity, but we will vehemently reject everything in between. The philosophy and reasoning behind this term is too advanced to go into here, but the short version is that the human eye is surprisingly good at identifying fake elements of an image, so an attempt to pass something off as human needs to be almost identical to the real McCoy or it needs to look nothing like a human at all or we’ll call “bullshit”, even if we can’t place why. This, then, begs the question of why indie rock demigods The Dismemberment Plan would name their comeback album after such a term (that it is misspelled can be attributed to whimsy or an attempt at whimsy or whatever). It is kind of like naming an album Side Effects—it invites all sorts of critical jokes while not making any sort of forward-thinking statement.
It takes a listen to ascertain the meaning, but I think I’ve got it. When The D-Plan announced intentions to make a new album, fans reacted with a large, but not unusual, outburst of glee, but when the dust settled, it occurred to them/us that there was every chance in the world that this album would suck. Lead singer Travis Morrison’s first album received the dreaded 0.0 score from Pitchfork (though I don’t think Travistan is all that bad), and his second album was even less noteworthy. Bassist Eric Axelson put out a few albums as part of Maritime. Who are Maritime? Good question. As for the rest of the band, well, if they put out music, it likely didn’t register with anyone—if it did, it would have made a blip on someone’s radar.
So a reunion made sense. It always made sense. But a new album? That’s a risky proposition, and one that devotees could only prepare for by anticipating either a glorious new album that puts everything put out by everyone else to shame (and celebrate by burning fields and salting the earth to please the gods) or a terrible, no-good, shitty fucking album that makes Kevin Federline’s Playing With Fire sound like Abbey Road (and mourn by burning fields and salting the earth). The key point here, besides that I should stay away from my friend who owns a suspicious amount of kerosene, is that Uncanney Valley is neither of these things. It is a good, arguably great, album that probably won’t crack anyone’s year-end list, and probably shouldn’t. It is stuck in a hazy place where it is too good to rip into and too bad to put on a pedestal. Welcome to the valley, guys.
There’s no denying that it feels like a Plan record: the familiar keyboards sparkle in familiar ways, the absurd tracks break up the proceedings just when things threaten to get stale, and Morrison serves as both singer and host. It finds a gear to ride and it stays there, which works against it, too. The closest thing to a standout is “Invisible”, and that isn’t too groundbreaking. As for the writing…well, okay, it serves its function in informing about Morrison’s exhaustion with modern society and how growing old is weird, and it is far from being disposable, but I doubt anyone will base an entire write-up of Uncanney Valley on just one of these lines in the same way I approached Emergency & I.
If that sounds like I’m selling it short considering the score above, trust that The Plan’s respect for the album format goes a long way towards selling the whole thing. These are good songs that are strung together in a way that makes you want to hear the next one, which was one of the many reasons I and so many people like me kept revisiting the band’s albums over the years. We had other, more important reasons, of course, but it is nice to hear these guys play comfortable tunes and jam out. Uncanney Valley is a more varied album than Is Terrified and features far fewer hiccups than Travistan does, but it doesn’t come close to touching the band’s best work. I’m kind of startled by how okay I am with this. I can’t explain it, but it feels right.