Every musician has a concert experience in his or her past that seemed to jumpstart their desire to write and perform, a show that, when looking back, perfectly encapsulates the range of emotions that go into songwriting. Mine was seeing the Dismemberment Plan for the first time at Chicago's Fireside Bowl back in April of 1999.
People tend to highlight the playful aspects of the Plan—the dancing, the cheeky onstage banter, the back and forth, yeah—as a leading driver of the band's greatness. Though I witnessed and felt much joy at the show that evening, and still feel it every time I put on one of their records, it's not the emotion that pulled me so firmly into their orbit. I have a vivid recollection of Travis Morrison onstage that night, during their performance of "The City": eyes wide with mania, glaring at the paneled ceiling, arms outstretched and belting out a wail of a "GOOD! BYYYYYYYYYYYYE!" in the song's final refrain. I saw in him an elation that was bleeding into panic, rage, desperation. Reflecting back on the show fills me with nostalgia, but it also makes me a little uneasy—there are still days where I know too well the turmoil I saw on Morrison's face.
That raw expression of distress later turned inward on their fourth album, Change, which showed a softer, wearier, lonelier version of the Plan (coincidentally, it is being reissued by Partisan records in November). Navigating an internalized universe of Emergency & I's distant panic, their final statement before a seven-year absence still weighs heavily on me as a songwriter, its subtle charms pumping through the very heart of the record I wrote.
It's no coincidence that Geography contains exactly one rager just as Change shows its teeth only with "Time Bomb": back when I started writing, I decided that I wanted to follow this structural template, allowing the record to burn brightly for just one song, and letting the remaining tracks the room to move at a more introspective pace (the other album that does this, perhaps better than any other, is The Walkmen's Bows & Arrows). In what is almost certainly the angriest song I've ever recorded, "Endless Sunlight" confronts something bigger and more exasperating than the theme of personal loss that runs through the LP—the notion that everything we know of this world will be gone some day; that we'll all die, that someday after we're all gone, the earth will die as the sun still shines, and there's nothing that any of us can do about it.
The hope we find in the face of that reality is, of course, is something we have to discover for ourselves: most of us find it in memories, in relationships, in music. And therein lies the strange brilliance, and the paradox of the Dismemberment Plan—they shined a light on a world painted with dread and loss, harnessed it, and found a way to transform that anxiety into something dazzling and hopeful, an affirmation of life in the face of death's absoluteness.
I run every day. Aside from music and love and friendship, running is as close as I can get to that feeling of affirmation. Every day my running path takes me right down Fullerton Avenue across the street from the Fireside Bowl, and every day I think about the panic, the joy, the transformation of the show I saw when I was 19 years old. So, to Travis, Eric, Joe, and Jason: if you're reading this, THANK YOU.
Read the First Map Ref Blog post: on the influence of Stereolab, Spoon, and LCD Soundsystem via "False Start."