Death Cab for Cutie


(Atlantic; 2005)

By Chet Betz | 22 August 2005

Pop Will Eat Itself. This is not merely Clint Mansell's alma mater, but a nigh truism that leads to Abbey Road and Yoko Ono, Brian Wilson on LSD, and famous High Fidelity quotes where John Cusack talks to the camera about being miserable. In the case of Death Cab For Cutie, it means something less backwardly romantic. It means an album called Plans, their first major label release, soon to have its every second soundtracking the disturbingly faux-mature love lives of paisley adolescents, Dakota Fanning kissing Rory Culkin as "Someday You Will Be Loved" triumphs their togetherness at long, long last. That would be okay, though, if the already dangerously white and poppy Death Cab hadn't cannibalized its own brains and guts and heart. Skin, skeleton, faded jeans and polo shirt float on the ambivalent Atlantic.

Death Cab's been eating itself from the get-go, but it's only now that the band can sit back and pick its teeth. Even Transatlanticism (2003) had its worthwhile moments: the electric bombast of opener "The New Year," the anthemic build of the title track, the intimate sheen of "A Lack of Color." The lyrical quality and album consistency had degraded considerably since the days of Something About Airplanes (1999) and We Have The Facts and We're Voting Yes (2000), but it wasn't a complete wash. Plans, on the other hand, is a complete wash, or at least as close to a complete wash as the melodically intuitive Death Cab can come. Yellowcard territory lies not far beneath this.

Little sign remains of Chris Walla's more creative production touch, the magic behind the lo-fi to hi-fi change on "Title Track" or the programmed percussion and harmonic Casio on "Photobooth" or the almost Godrichian sound and edit mastery displayed on "We Laugh Indoors." DCFC now rely quite a bit on contrived acoustic parts and key lines, the guitar used memorably only when terribly on dreadful upbeat numbers like "Soul Meets Body" and "Crooked Teeth," which features an asinine solo to rival Cuomo's "Beverly Hills" jerk-off. Death Cab's limpid arrangements on Plans generally fare better with the key-based tracks like "What Sarah Said" and "Brothers on a Hotel Bed," but those two have their own problems. The former aims its six and a half minutes at a "Transatlanticism" coda; instead, it comes up with a nimrod's dull mantra: "But love is watching someone die / So who's gonna watch you die? / So who's gonna watch you die..." The latter talks about a distance felt in closeness before concluding with the awkward, creepy simile, "Like brothers in a hotel bed," which is then repeated three times for even more awkward, creepy effect.

Gibbard once penned sentences with vivid detail and interesting turns of phrase: "Synapse to synapse / The possibility's thin / I'm dressed up for free drinks and family greetings on your wedding date / The figures in plastic on the wedding cake that I took were so real / And I kept a distance: the complications cloud the postcards and blips through fiberoptics / As the girls with pigtails were running from little boys wearing bowties their parents bought / 'I'll catch you this time.'" Now he mouths out indistinguishable vocal melodies, metaphor and cliche dutifully delivered in standard rhyming rhythm: "Sorrow drips into your heart through a pinhole / Just like a faucet that leaks and there is comfort in the sound / And while you debate half empty or half full / It slowly rises / Your love is gonna drown." That'd be a barely decent enough lyric to stand once without too much harassment, but Gibbard goes through it four or five times at the end of the opening song, like it's the most profound thing that he has to say on the record. Oh wait, it sort of is.

Over a sub-Cabrera acoustic guitar strum, Ben G. offers this indie kid hail mary play of spitting game: "If heaven and hell decide that they both are satisfied / and illuminate the no's on their vacancy signs / If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks / then I will follow you into the dark." So, old Ben's gonna follow his sweetie into oblivion, how charming. Not all that well thought out, a convenient and insipid hypothetical that sounds completely insincere in its coffee house context, but charming. Then there's the rather thoughtless second verse: "In Catholic school / as vicious as Roman rule / I got my knuckles bruised / by a lady in black / I held my tongue / as she told me, 'Son' / 'Fear is the heart of love' / So I never went back." Beyond the ridiculous image of a nun rapping young Gibby's hands with a ruler, he undermines love's heroism in his chorus by implying that he feels no terror or risk, and the complacency's just as evident in the music. It's for his lack of sense that his heart can grand-stand. Beautiful.

Plenty will echo the descriptor "beautiful" earnestly, though, their minds lulled into a state of vegetative acceptance by the band's mayonnaise; those bothering to listen actively must conclude that being loved by Gibbard would be embarrassing tedium. Ben thinks it's okay to say pap like "Cause you're the only sound I want to hear / A melody softly soaring through my atmosphere," and "I once knew a girl in the years of my youth / with eyes like the summer, all beauty and truth." Even tight drums, circular bass figures, perfectly placed piano notes and vocal samples can't save album highlight "Summer Skin" from "I don't recall a single care / just greenery and humid air," and a nostalgic use of the word "frolicked." No, it's not okay, Ben, not even if it's pop music. Plans is a shameless and famished record, the sound of pop slurping itself empty.