All songs and lyrics belong to La Dispute, not me. I’m just here to share my own interpretation of and experience with them.
This isn’t meant to be a review per se, it’s meant to be an analysis. It gets personal at the end. I’m not trying to bum anyone out or make anyone worry about me; I’m generally a happy person. My intention is to share why this album is so close to me, especially in those moments when I’m not.
The more avid readers of my blog will recall I recently wrote a post about La Dispute’s 2011 album Wildlife. At the end of that post, I linked to the band’s YouTube, where they had posted the first single from their newest album. I had listened to it once or twice, but only casually. I prefer to take my La Dispute albums in their entirety.
Rooms of the House hasn’t been out long, but I’ve given it enough thorough listens to write my thoughts on it. Sometimes these came in the middle of sleepless nights, sitting awake and listening to the album. Sometimes it was on the band’s YouTube page, where they’ve provided every song, complete with lyrics, in a seamless playlist. Once, I lay on my back during a panic attack and listened as I felt my heart rate increase and my breaths fall short for no readily apparent reason. And, of course, I gave it several listens while walking, either on the treadmill or around town.
The first thing I noticed about the album is that it’s shorter than their previous releases. Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair consists of 13 tracks totaling 52 minutes. Wildlife upped the number of tracks to 14 and clocks in at 58 minutes. Rooms of the House, on the other hand, contains only 11 tracks, and rests at 42 minutes.
At first I was worried that I might not be in for the same kind of intense roller coaster ride of a narrative the band usually puts out, but I pushed these thoughts aside. It’s not the length of a work that matters, but the impact it has on you. I wanted to be free of any preconceived notions when I listened to the album as a whole.
It’s immediately clear why this record is shorter than their past LPs. From the first second of the opening track, “HUDSONVILLE, MI 1956”, you can tell the band is much more focused, almost more frantic, like they’re dying to get their sound out and do it now.
“HUDSONVILLE, MI 1956”, the opening track of La Dispute’s Rooms of the House.
The opening track tells the story of a couple who are temporarily split up. A woman takes her son to her parents’ house in Terre Haute, Indiana, while her husband stays in Hudsonville, Michigan, until his week-long shift at the furniture mill ends and he can join them. Instead, a storm rocks both cities, knocking out the phone lines and leaving both parties unable to contact each other.
The song intensifies as its thematic storm does, sounding more frantic and chaotic as the narrative progresses. One of my favorite moments on the whole album comes when the storm has passed and the couple finally get into contact with each other, yet the song doesn’t calm down, instead escalating to new heights, and we catch a glimpse of a much more dangerous, internal storm our characters are weathering:
I remember those nights I couldn’t get through to you when
Quiet storms came, rattled the window panes
I couldn’t keep a thing the same way
When the storm blew in, and the furniture rearranged
I could see lightning there,
And a funnel cloud.
And your mother said,
“I swear I saw lightning in your eyes
When that call got through to the other side.”
—La Dispute, “HUDSONVILLE, MI 1956”
After this, we reach the calm after the storm. The song drops in volume and tempo, slowing to a crawl while vocalist Jordan Dreyer reads off the lyrics more like a list than a song, reflecting tattered thoughts, both profound and inconsequential things that cross one’s mind after an internal conflict, like leaves and branches scattered after a heavy storm: “Wires snap. Metal gets twisted. There’s the rattle of the window glass bending in. Take the kids down. Terre Haute. Coffee. Thanksgiving. Stay calm. Keep down…” While the music and the vocals drift apart and settle into discordant remnants of the song, we’re given the final line: “There are moments of collapse.”
These moments of collapse, that internal storm and separation itself serve as repeating themes on the record. I’m not sure if Rooms of the House is meant to be a concept album in the strictest sense, but there is a heavy theme: These songs all serve as rooms of a house, they all serve as pieces of a whole that can be something or nothing, depending on how they’re filled.
The next track is called “First Reactions After Falling Through the Ice” and tells the story of two people who go for a walk on a frozen lake. Our narrator is distracted by his everyday problems (“Had I cut my hair short? Had I grown my beard out long? … There’s a leak in the basement, stupid permanent estrangement, casement windows need glazing, hinges and arms need to be replaced.”). These problems disappear for a moment when the ice collapses below him, resulting in a brush with death.
“Don’t panic” I could hear you
Saying as I fell through
Blackness complete down,
Waiting until my feet touched ground.
At the bottom, they finally did
First reaction was “This is it.”
Next thought was “Just stay calm,
Kick up and save your phone.”
—La Dispute, “First Reactions After Falling Through the Ice”
Despite being one of the band’s shortest songs, “First Reactions” is one of their more vivid pieces. Imagery doesn’t always work in songs, but here it becomes personal; we hear first-hand the narrator’s plight, the everyday things still eating at him even at the bottom of a lake, the panic and the bargaining that accompany a moment of fright.
After this comes a change in pace. “Woman (in mirror)” is a quiet, slow tune, and one of the support beams that holds this metaphoric house together. The narrator begins by explaining the house: “Where a bookshelf goes, or a throw rug, how you shape any common space, and the language you make out of looks and names, all the motions of ordinary love.” The bookshelf mentioned here is a prominent symbol on the record. It’s as the first track says: “There is history in the rooms of the house.” Objects like this make up part of the history currently being laid out by our main characters.
In this song, our narrator watches his wife get dressed for a dinner party. It seems like a simple action, but the band expands it into an entire song, and not without reason. There are hints of trouble for the characters involved, but on the whole the song represents one moment.
And I watch you, your reversal
It’s an honest thing when there’s no one there.
Some days, they feel like dress rehearsals,
Some days I watch, and you don’t care.
There’s a dinner, Thanksgiving
Dress up nice, make a dish to bring
There are moments here, only yours and mine,
Tiny dots on an endless timeline.
—La Dispute, “Woman (in mirror)”
One of the song’s final lines is perhaps the most important to its narrative: “The smallest sounds leave the clearest echoes.” The song fades away soon after this, but later on in Rooms of the House, we’ll find out what it means.
“SCENES FROM HIGHWAYS 1981-2009” is a song about people driving away from their problems. This isn’t a new topic in the world of music (this song even mentions a few classics like “Born to Run” and “Running on Empty”). La Dispute takes the song down a different path than some of their predecessors; what we’re given is the story of people trying to drive away, but always returning home in the end.
“For Mayor in Splitsville” follows this by setting up jokes about how much of a pain marriage can be. Our narrator is reflecting on this while he considers his own marriage. He and his wife have just returned from their road trip, unable to drive away from their problems and ending up back home. They make promises to change their lives and their living space, but this does little to help: “But I guess in the end, we just moved furniture around.”
After this is the song “35”. Our narrator is sitting up late one night when the news comes on the television. A bridge has collapsed, cars have fallen into the river, and a rescue is underway. Our narrator enters a dreamlike state; he feels sorrow for the people involved in the accident, and by the next morning, he feels like his life is a bridge that collapsed under him, and wonders if he can still kick out the window and swim to safety.
This is followed by “Stay Happy There”. Here our narrator imagines parallel universes in which he ended up happy. He sees images of a world in which the bridge in “35” didn’t collapse, visions of him and his wife talking through their problems, living on a coast instead of the Midwest. He also imagines other, less hopeful ones: “Somewhere I’m up past dawn, until / Somewhere you live here still / Somewhere you’re already gone.” Meanwhile, all the things he and his wife have filled their house with, all of the things that carry history weigh heavily on him: “Doesn’t it seem a bit wasteful to you, to throw away all of the time we spent perfecting our love in close quarters and confines?”
Following this is another of these objects that carry history. “THE CHILD WE LOST 1963” begins and ends with a lamp, and the story in between is one of a group of young girls who come home from school one day to find their parents sitting at a table, with a shoebox full of things that would have belonged to their youngest sister, had she survived her birth. The girls are perhaps too young to understand exactly what happened, but they understand very well the weight and sadness their parents are experiencing, so heavy that both parents refuse to ever say the child’s name.
You watched while Father held her,
Said, “Some things come, but can’t stay here.”
You saw a brightness,
Like a light through your eyes closed tight,
Then she tumbled away.
From here, someplace
To remain in the nighttime shadows she made
To be an absence in Mom, a sadness hanging over her
Like some Pentecostal flame
Drifting on and off.
She was “sister,”
Or “the child we lost.”
—La Dispute, “THE CHILD WE LOST 1963”
Next is “Woman (reading)”. The title hearkens back to “Woman (in mirror)”, and this is no coincidence. In the latter, our narrator was watching his wife put makeup on in her mirror. “Woman (reading)” is set later, when the end of their marriage is all but imminent, and our narrator sits in his office struggling to write, instead watching his wife reading in the other room.
“Woman (reading)” by La Dispute.
I could probably write a blog post the entire length of this one just about this song. From the first listen, it became one of my favorite songs. I’ll only go into detail on a few of the reasons.
There’s a clear contrast between both “Woman” songs. In “(in mirror)” the titular woman is putting makeup on. She’s getting dressed up to leave. She and her husband are going to a dinner party. They appear content, but it’s only an appearance. The cracks are present, but the characters have put makeup over it. In “(reading)”, there’s no more illusion. Things didn’t work. But we’re given another tiny dot on this endless timeline, and our narrator gets a final look at his wife, not dressing up or putting makeup on, but sitting and reading. This is who she really is, and he’s trying to figure her out, knowing it’s too late. She’s aware he’s watching, and that’s where our moment ends. Everything is out in the open: No makeup, just a woman reading, and a man unable to read her.
From here the song proceeds into the future, after they part ways.
And I pause where I am for a second when I hear your name
Sometimes I think I see your face in improbable places
Do those moments replay for you?
When I’m suddenly there, and then won’t go away
When you’re sitting in your living room
Reading for the afternoon
Do you put your book down, look and try to find me there?
—La Dispute, “Woman (reading)”
Our narrator reflects on how, together, they turned the house into a home. He goes over local landmarks, like a wine stain on the couch and scratches in the floor, sometimes not remembering whether he and his wife created them, or they were already there, and seeing history in them regardless.
Earlier we were presented with the line “The smallest sounds leave the clearest echoes.” It’s possible to see “Woman (in mirror)” as the smallest sound, and “Woman (reading)” as the echo it leaves.
“Extraordinary Dinner Party” moves forward in time. It’s the morning after a snowstorm, and our narrator digs his car out of the snow and goes to work. Throughout the day he sees images of all the stories told so far, reminders of the dinner party, the bookshelf, a man driving away from his problems. History has repeated itself, and our narrator has done nothing to stop it, as he says: “Because I was afraid to change. But that’s not an excuse to stay.”
The last few seconds of the track break the fourth wall. You can hear the band begin to practice the next track, mess up, and laugh it off before starting again. It provides a small bit of respite from the otherwise heavy record, a break from the weight of the previous songs, and the next one.
“Objects in Space” closes the album. Music accompanies a spoken-word poem; there’s no singing here, only speaking. Somewhere, at some time, our narrator gathers all of these things from around his house. He spends hours looking them over, thinking of their stories, and then trying to find something to do with them, somewhere to put them. Melancholy guitars guide us through the track, providing a chord progression to serve as the chorus, while the bass and the drums keep the song nailed down, serving as a structure for the narrator to weave through. This is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. Defeat is audible in Jordan Dreyer’s voice, the guitars drip with resignation.
Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair begins with silence, an amp being turned on, and then a slow guitar progression. It ends with a similar song fading away. Wildlife begins with a distant, twangy guitar playing a tune for a while until the rest of the instruments come in, and ends with vocals fading away while the guitar drones on a few more times.
In contrast, Rooms of the House began with guitars and vocals in the first second of the record. I mentioned before that it’s shorter and more focused, and “Objects in Space” is no exception. We’re given our story, and then the record ends as promptly as it began. In terms of sound, there’s no lingering, no echo; just a tiny dot on an endless timeline.
My head is another story. The music bounces back and forth across my mind, the lyrics echo in the everyday things I see that remind me of my own tiny dots: My guitar on the wall, still missing its A string. The hat I made and never leave home without. Tickets to a concert I never went to. A letter someone wrote me (and I never wrote back). Figurines line every shelf of my desk, some of them found, some bought, some given as gifts, some I don’t like looking at. I have shelves full of books I’ve read, and boxes full of books I’ve written.
I’ve never lost someone to a stillbirth or a bridge collapse. I’ve never sat and watched a woman I love put makeup on, or sit and read. I’ve never driven down the highway to forget my problems, only to find them waiting on the porch when I get back. These are things I’ve experienced only vicariously through Rooms of the House, but there’s something cathartic about that. I wouldn’t know for sure, but maybe the guys in La Dispute have never walked home at four in the morning with a panic attack after telling someone you don’t love them. Maybe they’ve never stayed in a hotel after losing a house, then heard someone die in the next room over. Maybe they’ve never had nerve damage that calls into question whether they’ll ever write another word, let alone a song or a story or a book. I haven’t experienced what they have, and maybe they haven’t experienced what I have, but we all have our echoes to live with, and sometimes it’s nice to share them, to create a mutual understanding with another person. Sometimes it’s nice to listen to someone else’s echoes, and let them drown out your own for a while.