Sometimes catching a band midway through its career is a lot like early-adulthood dating. While there's all sorts of reasons to fall in love with someone's here and now, we've all bitten back a question to the tune of "You actually thought that was a good idea when you were in college?"
Like most of America, I didn't fall in love with The Dismemberment Plan until '99's Emergency and I, when the band finally grew into its art-rock ambitions and its quirk-spazz sense of humor. Unfortunately, Emergency came three albums and six years into the Plan's career. That became painfully apparent when, like any lovelorn popster, I delved into the back catalog and drew up The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified, Emergency's predecessor and, as I quickly found out, the band's adolescent growing-pains album. Where I was expecting genre-bending, electronically muddled art-rock, I got a handful of dingers ("Ice of Boston" and "Doing the Standing Still") alongside some chokingly mediocre punky garage pop. Imagine my surprise. It was like having a kick-ass hipster 25-year-old girlfriend admit that senior year of high school she preferred Warrant and Cinderella to Nirvana and Mudhoney. Whole worlds crumble in your brain.
"This is the Life" was one of those image-shifting moments between me and the Plan. Singer Travis Morrison doesn't really have much to say beyond "keep on keepin' on," nor does he seem bothered to call up a performance that doesn't sound like he recorded it while laying in bed after a night of heavy drinking. Synths scuttle around in the background, but they're so basic, so primal and so throwaway, it's hurtful to pay attention to them. Bassist Eric Axelson rescues the track with the faintest hint of funk in his bass line, but it's not enough: "This is the Life" was obviously part of the Plan's learning curve toward early-'00s indie dominance.
But surprises like these are to be expected when you meet a mature band or lover, right? Where they were isn't as important as where they are now, you can't let her past shape your present, blah, blah, blah. After the shock wore off, me and The Dismemberment Plan worked it out, and I fell back in love with Emergency and I and, to a lesser degree, Change. I still keep that copy of The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified around, sort of like a senior picture of your hipster girlfriend with big metal hair and a Motley Crue T-shirt because, you know, it's a cute reminder of where they both were before your paths crossed.