Everyone has an album that has stayed with them for years, even decades, a constant musical companion that grows with you as your life and perspective changes. With that in mind, Deadshirt presents Perfect Records, an ongoing series of personal essays about the albums that stuck with us and how they’ve shaped our lives.
At the beginning of 2012, I was feeling trapped between a major, a school I no longer enjoyed, and an approaching graduation that I wasn’t sure I deserved. The rising action of my life up to that point seemed now to be the setup for someone else’s existence. What came before no longer mattered and what lie ahead was disconcertingly uncertain. I was lost.
I retreated into media, hoping to distract myself from my depression. No solution seemed available to me other than riding out the rest of my senior year by filling up my time with anything but schoolwork, lest I should suffer too much for my now unwanted degree. Movies, television, books, and music all provided me with a continuous stream of short respites from my mood, but between each small hillock, I plateaued. I could recognize no change in my life. This would continue for weeks – and to be honest, it would have gone on for months more if not for my serendipitous discovery of The Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency & I.
My iTunes library says that I added the album on February 25th, 2012. I do not remember anything particularly eventful about that day or any particular reason why I chose that album at that specific time. At the rate I was burning through media, my choices relied more on coincidences of the moment than on rhyme or reason. So, with no real intent, I gave the album my first spin on that day and everything changed. Unlike so much else of the past few weeks, I did not cast it aside and move on. I could not. At the time, I was giving albums a maximum of two listens before finding something else, but I was already lost in the music when I queued up the album for a third consecutive go. It became clear in the time that followed that my joyless days of capricious media hopscotch were over; I had settled on something concrete. I must have listened to the album at least once a day through all of March.
Emergency & I was the album I had been yearning to listen to, and I had no idea that I was looking for anything of the sort; I had not been searching for answers in the media I consumed, but I was glad to have found some. The more I listened to it, the more it seemed to be the guidebook for aimless twenty-somethings and I had discovered it just in time. It was a life preserver at a crucial moment in my life and I’ve carried it with me to this day.
Album opener “A Life of Possibilities” has this to say: “You dig down underground now / through the soil, through the cooling clay / As the din fades above you / you’re moving / you’re secret / you’re nowhere / it’s all good,” which is the first of many “things I needed to hear” that the album would offer. The words contained on Emergency & I helped me rediscover my sense of self-worth, and along with that, some of the motivation I needed to do something other than sit around and wait for graduation to deliver me. I didn’t feel “fixed” – far from it – but it didn’t feel so lonely anymore to admit that I needed some time to find my way.
Musically, The Dismemberment Plan share sonic DNA with Fugazi, Slint, and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 – rough, loud, and odd bands of the early 90’s. But the best albums by those bands are more art piece than personal diary, and though I had listened to all three before the Plan, Emergency & I grabbed me like nothing I had ever heard before. Frontman Travis Morrison’s thoughts in 1999 about any and every frustration of being twenty-something just felt that much more personal and immediate, ringing true to me even in 2012. But the importance of the album to me isn’t just that it nails the lows so well, but that it offered me a realist’s sliver of hope that things would get better. It was something that these other bands didn’t seem to offer, and it was delivered without the schmaltz or irony that was usually paired such a sentiment.
Back to “A Life of Possibilities”: “You’re nowhere / it’s all good” – the songs on Emergency & I do not deny that there is pain in being lost and aimless, but the songs also do not deny that there is hope in staying true to the combination of flaws and gifts that got you to where you are now. It wasn’t as much wisdom as it was a life philosophy suggestion that came from someone who was writing about his insecurities in the present tense. I took it all to heart.
“Spider in the Snow” has the brilliant lines like “You thought you just might need a little change / and now you find you got nothing but / How can a body move the speed of light / and still find itself in such a rut?” bemoaning life moving at its own pace. But then the chorus goes: “You can’t say it but I know it’s in there / You don’t know it but I know that you’re scared / Obvious, alone – a spider in the snow,” which gives misery some company and understanding. Every song outlines a Thing That’s Wrong with My Life but always finds time to dedicate a moment or a word to making the song about the Things Wrong with Our Lives. It feels so sentimental to say so, but for where I was, I needed every one of these little bits to get me to finally open up. I found my friends again and I talked to them about my life and my insecurities, which always turned out to be our insecurities, our lives. The new closeness I found with old friends was due in no small part to this album and I still hold it up as one of the most truly personal things I’ve ever experienced.
It’s hard to pick a favorite song out of an album that works so perfectly as a whole, but I’d have to say “You Are Invited,” a hipster apology letter and one of the best song narratives I’ve ever heard. The protagonist of the song receives a magical invitation which gets him into any party he so desires, be it the best club downtown or the private party of the year. Of course, even though the parties are perfect, he doesn’t find them so, nitpicking each after he leaves early. However, before he makes it home he runs into his neighbor, crying about missing out. In the final moments of the song, the insufferable protagonist redeems himself as human after all with the lines: “I thought about it for a second / the invite in my hand / I threw it down at his feet and I said: / You are invited by anyone to do anything / You are invited for all time / You are so needed if you really want to go / You are invited for all time.” It’s a favorite not only for its musical elements but because if there’s one song that marked the beginning of my slow change from sadsack and obnoxiously negative hipster to accepting and open-mindedly positive (but still a) hipster, it’s this one.
My life right now is not so great. I still don’t really know what I’m doing with my life, but in a different way than two years ago. In revisiting the album a while back, I found that the old lessons still applied, but that new ones came through, and hopefully that will be a start to getting me thinking about the future again in a less jumbled way. Until then, I have found solace in the jittery energy of album closer “Back and Forth” and the eternal idea that you can calm a troubled mind with a good dance party among people who feel the same way.
“So throw your hands in the air / and wave them like you just don’t care / It’s on a whim; it’s on a dare / to shrug away what we can’t bear / We’re going back and forth / and back and forth and back and forth and back / We’re going back and forth / and back and forth and back and forth and back”
Check out more from our Perfect Records series.