Someday they’ll do our hearts the very same favor
The wails of ruined lives brought to a halt
By the serene hum of computers in air-conditioned vaults.”
Thus wailed Travis Morrison of The Dismemberment Plan, in 1999, cresting to an artistic crescendo as the millennium unraveled on their epochal indie album Emergency & I. It’s a snide sentiment boiled down to pithy punk poetry, rooted in some evenings reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and thinking to himself, “Maybe there’s more than fiction in this science fiction.”
The rest of the album picks up shards of an exploded dystopia through the laments of a diffident twentysomething caught in the crossfire. As E&I hurtles towards its 20th anniversary, its themes are only more relevant to a tech-fueled society that is increasingly bemoaning (usually on tech platforms) the fruits of its own progress – all the data in the world, and no happier or more beautiful for it. While Netflix may have matched up the pieces of House of Cards through aggressive data-mining, and it may transmit its programs in a dizzying chain of 1s and 0s, there’s a reminder here as well that we’ll likely place even more value on the people who can tell an emotionally resonant story throughs words, sounds, and pictures. Same goes for music: while Spotify can break artists or tailor-make a playlist with algorithms, ultimately Travis had something to say, over 45 minutes and 7 seconds, that defies “trending” or byte-sized encapsulation.
So for all the prophesying around 2000 about the death of the album and the almost comical designation of “your hard drive” as album of the year in Spin, the album endures, and here’s one castigating “your hard drive” for tearing apart your soul (if not just unceremoniously silencing your heart). Stand back and marvel at the way disjointed sounds tug oddly at your heartstrings, because with each passing year there is a firmer sad recognition of modernity’s merciless imprint. Sink into it and marvel at the rueful realization that “a life of possibilities” feels impossibly overwhelming and constrained; two diverging pathways is a Frostian quandary, a million is stultifying.
Travis Morrison ponders spiders in the snow, memory machines, magician tricks, gyroscopes, and maybe most memorably an anonymous invitation in the mail, and it’s all bound together by frenetic rhythms – flirting with intentional irritation, but inevitably lapsing into naked expressions of beauty. It’s an album to confront the frustrations of the technotopia while burrowing away into private musical reflection.
And it’s a plaintive expression of the reality that with recent history’s chance for us to contemplate unprecedented billions, trillions, and beyond, these numbers remind us how insignificant we are in the sea of data:
“If it's a life of possibilities
That pulls you away, that claws and tears
And challenges you to stay, well then
If it's a life of possibilities
That you've gotta live well, don't be surprised
When they don't remember you or simply don't want to”