[Editor's Note: Fuck Guilty Pleasures celebrates the over-produced, commercial, artless, lowbrow music that we believe is genuinely worthwhile. Like, among the best music ever.]
In 2004, Dismemberment Plan frontman Travis Morrison released his somewhat-anticipated solo debut, Travistan to a few polite reviews (Blender, Spin, AV Club) and one notably different one.
Won over to the Plan in 2003 by the best show I'd ever seen in my life (one of their last before retiring), I'd pre-ordered my copy of Travistan and was still processing what I thought was a very good, if twisty album. So I was surprised to open the lead Pitchfork review on September 27, 2004 and see the rating at the top: 0.0 out of 10. Even though my tastes hardly ran with those of the site (which I've since written for), I thought it was an error. Other negative reviews popped up on Popmatters and Tiny Mix Tapes, and eventually it came out that at least one music store had refused to stock the album. Used and promo copies sold for as little as $3 on Amazon within months, which wasn't the case with the other releases on Barsuk Records.
What did people find wrong with the album? Sure, Morrison sings on the fringe of his pitch in “Change,” the first real song, and the string-and-piano-laden “Angry Angel” was too much to stomach for even diehards like me. But a zero? This was from people who gave his band's previous two full-lengths a 9.6 (since amended to a 10.0 — polarizing guy, huh) and an 8.6. Only Stylus broke rank from the other post-Pitchfork reactions: “I'm bummed that people are so quick to reject what doesn't fit their immediate logic. It's ironic that folks would get off on shredding an album that's about trying to be kind and honest at the same time.”
Morrison told Washington City Paper, “Up until the day of the review, I'd play a solo show, and people would be like, 'That's our boy, our eccentric boy.' Literally, the view changed overnight … I could tell people were trying to figure out if they were supposed to be there or not. It was pretty severe, how the mood changed.”
By the time Morrison came to my town, he opted not to play even a single tune from his most recent record. I watched him perform an entire set of new, unreleased songs.
If you haven't heard Travistan, you must be wondering what the fuck this thing sounds like. The quote above is accurate; the music isn't that different from his Plan records at all. If it were a truly random detour, bad word-of-mouth would've spread long before the Pitchfork review. The record sounds like the Plan with all links to their punk and hardcore past removed. Only the funky keyboard sounds, hip-hop and jazz allusions of his recent records remain, and his in-no-way-new sense of humor is amped up. That's really all that changed. The tone of the lyrics wasn't new for him either, though his emo following would get angry at their inability to relate to a new emphasis on novelty wackiness.
Some people really hate Soul Coughing and They Might Be Giants. I imagine it's they who were embarrassed by “Get Me Off This Coin,” a song split into four pieces throughout the record, each one detailing a currency-honored president in his own (modern) words. Morrison in the voice of a pot-smoking Thomas Jefferson sings “I like my nations in constant revolution/ And my booty wide.”
AV Club nailed it when they called Travistan “an artist rethinking himself and risking embarrassment in order to see what he can do.” But it's a fairly regular alt-rock record in any other context besides a sensitively-tended indie utopia. Only one track exceeds five minutes, and every single song has a standard pop verse/chorus/verse structure.
Anyone already familiar with Morrison and still scandalized by the odd chord changes or intermittent synth effects is kidding themselves. “Song for the Orca,” “Born in 72,” “People Die” and “The Word Cop” are four of the catchiest songs he's ever written. And the sonic palette is particularly surprising considering his backing band was fucking Death Cab for Cutie. “Born” steals its bounce from the B-52s' “Love Shack,” while “People Die” favors the power-ups from Donkey Kong.
It's not all wacky either. In fact it's at times more sober and articulate than the more “serious” Plan. Travistan is easily his most political record, with lots of history-nerd humor and surprising, unconventional criticism. “Che Guevara Poster” lambasts the dorm room ubiquity of what Morrison calls “Christ in a beret,” contrasted against his own union-championing radical of a grandfather. Morrison's still honest enough to drop in that his protagonist (and own ancestor!) “didn't like black folks.” “People Die” is hilariously dark and true: “Someday we'll read obituaries like the sports.” Indie circles are never accustomed to this kind of directness — just ask his fellow member of the 0.0 club, Liz Phair, whose anthem about “hot white cum” was on the last offender to make a Pitchfork reviewer so uncomfortable.
Only the softer side revealed on the second half is truly new or awkward-feeling. But only “Angry Angel” is an outright failure, and a bold, deserved one. The other introspective ballad, the Eels-ish “Any Open Door” includes a particularly ironic line in retrospect: “They think nothing through/ No, they only react.”
One of the most laughed-at songs in the Pitchfork review was “My Two Front Teeth, Pts. 2 and 3,” where Morrison describes an ambush that leaves him toothless, tries to crack a joke out of it (“I never did floss much”) and works up to a dramatic coda where he interpolates “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” as a choked-up lament. He later revealed it was a 9/11 metaphor.
After one more coolly received album, Morrison announced on his website that he was retired. Then the Dismemberment Plan reunited recently to tour, even playing the Pitchfork Festival. If I were them, I would've performed Travistan in its entirety in front of hundreds of the site's devotees. But the guy really is better than WTF stunts. So's this album.