In 1744, the French playwright Pierre de Marivaux premiered his latest theater piece. It was called La Dispute. It’s centered around a cruel experiment engineered by aristocrats who are eager to settle an argument over whether it was men or women who started the battle of the sexes.
The aristocrats raise two pairs of orphans (two boys, two girls) in total isolation from the rest of the world. On the day of the experiment, the aristocrats dump the four orphans, none of whom have ever met a member of the opposite sex, in an artificial Garden of Eden and sit back and wait to see which of them will ruin “paradise” first.
It makes perfect sense that an emo-leaning band would name themselves after Marivaux’s play. The story of La Dispute would make for a perfect emo concept album. The fall from innocence, the difficulty men and women have when it comes to communicating with each other, feeling like you’re at the mercy of forces beyond your control: These are through-lines and preoccupations that appear throughout La Dispute’s challenging body of work.
Formed in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2004, La Dispute came out weird right out of the gate. The band’s lead singer, Jordan Dreyer, wasn’t a self-identified musician at the time: He was a writer of poetry and prose, not lyrics. But that literary background, coupled with Dreyer’s spoken delivery (recalling at times the chilling, soft-spoken monologues Brian McMahan would mumble through on Slint’s Spiderland), gave the band a unique identity.
Whereas so many emo bands sound on record like torn-out hearts, violently gushing melodies and mash-note lyrics all over the place, there’s a cool reserve to La Dispute’s music — they often sound like they’re on the verge of erupting. Which makes it all the more satisfying when they do.
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La Dispute have practically achieved elder statesmen status in the “post-emo” scene, a subgenre that counts groups like Baltimore’s Pianos Become The Teeth and L.A.’s Touche Amore as members.
Post-emo’s approach to emo and screamo is akin to how post-rock treated alternative rock — as Silly-Putty to sculpt into weirder, more abstract shapes. Listening to La Dispute, you get echoes of the grandeur and intensity of At The Drive-In, the pent-up fury of Refused, and the ambient delicacy of Thursday’s quieter moments. But Adam Vass (bass), Corey Stroffolino (rhythm guitar), Brad Vander Lugt (drums), and Chad Morgan-Sterenberg (lead guitar) also mix in jazz, country, and prog elements into their sound, creating a sonic backdrop for Dreyer’s words that remains unpredictable from song to song, album to album.
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Following on the heels of the 10th anniversary of their classic debut Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair, the band put out their fourth album this year. Panorama is a beautiful and mysterious record, one that slowly unfurls itself over the course of its 10 tracks.
It’s an album that stares unflinchingly at hard subjects: divorce, grief, and the slow erasure of family members from Alzheimer’s. La Dispute have never been afraid to go to dark places in their work — like on “King Park” off 2011’s Wildlife, a song about a drive-by shooting that actually happened in Grand Rapids in 2008. Dreyer’s literary background really comes out in his lyrics: The specificity of details makes the stories he tells hard to shake. Like on the opening to “FULTON STREET,” where Dreyer’s narrator sees a jawbone and teeth sticking out of the underbrush as workers dig up a body behind a rest stop.
Dreyer shares a quality that all great writers possess: the ability to construct mazes that are beautiful enough and intricate to make both their characters and readers reluctant to leave them.