The Dismemberment Plan’s Change is one of my favorite records of all time. It would come with me on the desert island, and I would spend weeks listening to nothing else I’m sure, so if this particular desert island hadn’t yet gone digital then I’d probably ask whoever’s in charge if I was allowed to bring two copies in case I wore one of them out; I sweat this record that hard. Last night I had a dream about the closing track, “Ellen and Ben,” which for my money is one of the best songs the Plan ever wrote. You might think, “Oh that’s nice, sometimes I have dreams about my favorite songs too.” But no, let me tell you why this dream was some gravely important, conspiracy-busting, National Treasure 2 type shit.
From 2009 to 2011, I wrote about music for the webzine Cokemachineglow. There were some wonderful writers there who had a lot of differing opinions and tastes, but one of the only things that (almost) everyone on staff agreed was that the Dismemberment Plan was a great band. Now, between members of the staff there was this heated, ongoing argument — it had started long before I came aboard, and I’m sure it rages still — about what “Ellen and Ben” was really about. There’s a pretty clear narrative on the surface of the song, chronicling the unceremonious beginning (“They met at someone’s housewarming party, they didn’t like each other at first”), middle (“SoCo in bed, a sunny Sunday watching John McLaughlin and having sex again and again”) and end (“I heard they broke up loudly at a wedding and never saw each other again”) of the title characters’ relationship, as seen through the eyes of a narrator who seems to be a casual friend. But when you listen close the song has a mysterious distance and ambiguity about it too, especially when the narrator suddenly starts singing about himself and his childhood memories in the bridge. “Ellen and Ben” is loose enough that I’m sure everybody who knows the song has a slightly different reading of it, but the CMG staff was essentially split into two opposing parties: 1) the people who believed Ellen and the narrator were just friends 2) the people who believed that Ellen and the narrator had some sort of romantic history (the extremist view was that he was still in love with her, or even that something had happened between them — maybe the bridge was this coy sort of old-Hollywood-style cutaway, then — and that it’d been the reason Ellen and Ben broke up), and that the last verse of the song (which switches, without explanation, to second person pronouns) was a direct address to her. Now, I stand proudly and firmly in Camp #1, and I will explain why in a second. The #2s were really the conspiracy theorists in my opinion, and they thought their big trump card was to say to us, presumably in the Kevin-Costner-JFK voice, “BUT WHY DID SHE HAVE HIS COPY OF NEBRASKA IN THE FIRST PLACE?” To which we #1s would be like, “Oh come on.”
And yet, the play’s the thing. Like anybody who comes up with theoretical conspiracy theories about Dismemberment Plan songs and writes lengthy rants about music for a webzine in their early twenties, I was actively, anxiously avoiding grad school at this time of my life, but also looking for some way to do the kind of critical thinking and writing I no longer had an outlet for. I’d spent the entire previous year researching and writing a senior thesis about Ophelia, in which I’d argued that the narrative logic of Hamlet hinges upon the audience never knowing for sure whether or not Hamlet and Ophelia had slept together. So, naturally, the “Ellen and Ben” debate was right up my alley.
Change is a record about the burdens and the limits of empathy: about the weirdness of an existence in which we can feel a visceral connection to the pain of strangers (“Superpowers”) and at the same time can feel that the people we love the most don’t know anything about us at all (“The Other Side”). Change is also a record about surrendering to uncertainty, about accepting all the things we can’t control or even know for sure. The opening synth line and gently crashing rhythm of “Ellen and Ben” has always sounded to me like being inside of a pinball machine; Morrison sings in this acquiescent tone, not like he’s the fingers on the buttons but like he has resigned himself to a life as the pinging silver ball.
To me, “Ellen and Ben” is about trying to make sense of other people’s love from the outside, and finally accepting that you can’t, that there will always be a logic between two people that a third won’t be able to decipher. The meaning of the song is evasive and debate-worthy because nobody really writes songs about this. Nobody really admits that they do this either, create narratives and mythologies about other people’s relationships that they can only ever observe from a distance. I remember listening to “Ellen and Ben” a couple years ago, right after I heard that two of my friends who’d made up this real power couple for a few years had broken up. I plugged their names into the song and hummed it to myself; the syllables were the same. A few days later, a friend and I tried to make sense of it on the phone, and when we couldn’t decode the reasons we spoke selfishly — Things will never be the same for us, because we can never be equally close with both of them now, we’ll have to choose. Or of course, If “Ellen” & “Ben” couldn’t keep it together, where’s the hope for the rest of us? (“It seems kinda weird, they made each other feel like they could die but they couldn’t stay the slightest of friends.”) But, as the shrugging tone of the last verse suggests, things change. What you learn from other people is not the logic of connections but the rhythm of moving on. You put another coin in the machine. You try again.
Or maybe that’s not what it’s about to you at all. I remember this thing that Morrison said in a piece my friend Aaron Leitko wrote about the Plan two years ago. He said his big regret when he thought back on the band was that he wishes he’d been able to write lyrics that weren’t so straightforward. “You know on ‘Once in a Lifetime,’ where David Byrne is singing, ‘There is water at the bottom of the ocean,’ and you’re like, ‘Why is he saying that?’” Morrison said. “There aren’t a lot of those moments [in the Dismemberment Plan catalogue].” I think he’s wrong. There are lines like that all over Change. Back to my dream about “Ellen and Ben” — I dreamt I’d discovered this demo with an extra verse at the end that cleared up all the ambiguity and that I couldn’t wait to tell people at CMG. I tried to hold onto every word, chanting them in the dream like you’d repeat the license plate of a car that hit you until you could find a piece of paper to jot it down. When I woke up, of course, I couldn’t remember a single word, and I was relieved. I wouldn’t have wanted to know.