By Conrad Amenta | 26 February 2008
It’s in the smaller spaces that the kinds of teenagers we sometimes hate, and once were, fester in the miasma of their own self-interest. Unless you’re one of CMG’s few pre-teen readers (in which case, welcome! Tell your parents all about us, and get that filthy Akon song off your iPod), either you know the story well or you’re currently living it: swilling and sweating nervously, wondering if the other kids are watching you (they are), and starting to develop a sense that something is not quite right. It’s the attention to the supposedly intimate, but actually self-involved—choosing to live one’s life in these small spaces—that supposedly lends credence to a brand of philosophy that can be horribly cliché, narrow and predictable. This perspective also unfairly paints a picture of the demographic for which it’s intended, in which these kids have always, will always, and should always have their heads up their own ass.
Death Cab for Cutie, Walla’s full time gig, writes soundtracks for these small spaces. This is why, despite their dedication to perfectly likeable, serviceable indie rock, and the general quality of We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes (2000) and The Photo Album (2001), they’re so hard to like; Death Cab get all up in our hearts’ face, like boneless Muppets of insipidity, goggle-eyed and jawless and fawning all over everything like great, gaping walking wounds. Stuart Smalley philosophers; Old Navy therapists; and now, thanks to Walla’s efforts, you can add to that list a Subway Sandwich Social Consciousness: all the taste and half the calories of literate, engaged politics.
The title of Death Cab first mate Chris Walla’s utterly pointless and completely unnecessary solo album implies that it’s moving from these spaces to seat itself at the adults’ table. It promises to provide instructions for living, a manual for survival in that big bad world, indicative of the same tendency to condescend that Death Cab display when they proffer their wisdom in the form of post-drama observation, gleaned from an aspect of indie at large for which the genre has been long maligned. If only we (and by “we” they mean “you”) could learn how to “sing together,” to “hold on,” or one of myriad other vacant placeholders for actual lyrics, then surely we can come together and accomplish…whatever.
All difference and dialogue is absorbed into this facile, repugnantly one-dimensional world view that depends wholly on retrospection and condemnation. Field Manual, aside from being a boring piece of shit, assumes that in being political at a political time it has something to offer other than platitudes and an air of self-congratulation. Make no mistake, Field Manual is an empty, despicable, trashy album by a half-decent producer grasping at what he considers the gravitas of authentic songwriting, emoting without even the courage that Death Cab display in admitting their albums are basically looking in the mirror writ cosmic.
Aesthetically the album is an equally awful collection of pabulum, completely derelict in its offerings of arrangements and tones, sanded smooth of its personality and as derivative in its every moment as the bands it’s most derivative of. Even if you like this kind of music, and I sure as hell used to, at least before I realized that it gives its audience all the credit it might afford a befuddled collection of pre-toddlers, you’d be better off digging a Jets to Brazil record out of your closet. Even Moneen offered adolescent kicks and an odd time signature here and there in comparison to Field Manual‘s antiseptic, bland inability to even stray from what feels like an album-long tempo. Walla’s voice mimics the style of his genre, its breathy, limited range wholly unremarkable and, in places, unlistenable for its keening. His guitars shimmer with delay in an ape of his own band’s Stability EP (2002), and the listener is suddenly presented with the brain-bursting notion that Chris Walla’s biggest influence might actually be Ben Gibbard.
Growing up is hard to do, and so it’s undeniable that songs about how hard it is or was are surely resonant and worth consideration. But to be told to grow up by an infantile songwriter is a bit too much for me to endure. Pretentious, ill-informed, a purposeless album supposedly about purposefulness, and totally forgettable, Field Manual will only appeal to the Death Cab enthusiast and completist (should such a poor soul actually exist somewhere). If you find yourself learning anything about politics from this album, then we’re in a much sorrier state than I thought.