It’s no longer a surprise when any broken-up band gets back together, but it was still particularly thrilling when The Dismemberment Plan broke its silence for shows in 2007 and then made its reunion more permanent in 2011. In the ’90s and on through the early ’00s, the D.C. band’s sharp rhythmic angles, anxiety-riddled lyrics, and dissonant textures resonated with the neurotic, nerdy, and lonely. But unlike many of their peers, The Plan often took a wry, humorous approach to personal discomfort and social isolation, so that its music (and live shows) often had a celebratory feel.
With this history in mind, it’s a little jarring to absorb Uncanney Valley, the band’s first record since 2001’s Change. Although several songs sound like a continuation of that album’s mellower math and indie rock—in particular the motormouth funk of “Waiting”—the sonic tension and discord that marked the Plan’s first chapter is mostly absent. Instead, the record is full of relatively straightforward midtempo songs with chipper indie-rock and pop traits. “No One’s Saying Nothing” boasts sleigh bells and carnival-esque keyboards; “Living In Song” has wrinkly guitars and gulping synths; and “Lookin’” has ringing riffs, layered harmonies, and glimmering chords. If it weren’t for Travis Morrison’s inimitable singing voice—which is in fine, yelping form—these songs would be indistinguishable from other, similar tunes.
That plainness is even more obvious next to Uncanney Valley’s best moments, which find The Plan gleefully disrupting genre limitations. “White Collar White Trash” is a tornadic early XTC homage with humming keyboards and whirling guitars; “Mexico City Christmas” is frantic soul with clanking rhythms, alarmed keyboards, and an animated Morrison vocal performance; and “Invisible” creates dread and angst by repeating a pattern of plinking piano and ascending strings.
Uncanney Valley’s lyrical progression is also interesting, mainly because the album’s protagonists are complex and self-aware. “Waiting” is a meticulous deconstruction of someone stewing about being strung along by a romantic interest, while “Living In Song” deals with relationship regret, and the timid outsider in “Invisible” hopes “someday I’m gonna find my groove” in a city and a crowd. “Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer” is even more poignant; it talks about a father who forsook his passion for dancing once he had a kid, from the perspective of a son who doesn’t want to repeat that same mistake.
It’s not all sadness, though: “Lookin’” is a wholly sweet song about staring at a beloved and being in awe of her affection. Indeed, Uncanney Valley’s problem is not that The Plan has grown up. It’s more that the record has trouble reconciling the tormented creative souls the band members were with the well-adjusted, grown-up musicians they’ve become. Uncanney Valley is curiously conflict-free—and for a band that always thrived on friction, that can make for a frustrating listen.