Death Cab for Cutie
(Sonic Boom; 2003)
By Amir Nezar | 4 November 2003
We’ve all been watching DCFC slide. They have been the falling star, the doomed comet of indie rock disappointment. With such a great burst onto the scene as Something about Airplanes, perhaps it was naïve to hope for better, or for some improvement. But it was so painful to watch their fall because it felt like it had been prophesized from the beginning. We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes was obviously the trotting out of rehashed ideas; there was not a song on the album that could measure up to the power of "Bend to Squares," or the desperate energy of "Fake Frowns," or the emotional devastation of "Champagne from a Paper Cup." But it wasn’t a complete downhill slip. After all, given the strength of their debut more of the same wasn’t something to elicit huge complaints. Kind of like the Strokes. But then The Photo Album began to make it clear that not only was more of the same not going to cut it, but that Death Cab was just getting tired.
The release of the lackluster You Can Play These Songs with Chords didn’t help matters. We didn’t want the b-sides from their debut; a bunch of songs from their sophomore effort filled that niche. The more poppy Photo Album took care of the rest.
Then, as if a death knell was needed, the Postal Service released Give Up this year. It’s a decent batch of songs, the obvious arm of experimentalism that Gibbard felt the need to indulge in. On its own, it was certainly a strong enough effort, but DCFC was the confirmed, in most fans’ (including my own) mind, to have one foot in the grave. Gibbard had his mind elsewhere, we were all sure, and it was only a matter of time before Death Cab fulfilled the promise of its own slow doom.
When I picked up Transatlanticism, I knew it before I had taken off the security sticker. I thought perhaps it was a premature judgment. After all, it seemed pretty different —the aggressive power chords of opener "The New Year," while not particularly impressive in any song-writing sense, nonetheless had the signature Gibbard melody to them; slightly off-kilter, slightly melancholic. Yet, even then Gibbard undermined my own hopes, perhaps unintentionally with the line, "So this is the new year / And I don’t feel any different." The following melody was again, fairly solid, but the elements I had come to expect from DCFC over the three real albums they released were present; mildly creative drumming, ornamental guitar, and (still) solid lyrics. That there was little bass work to speak of was worrisome. But lines like, "I wish the world was flat like the old days / And I could travel just by folding the map / No more airplanes and speed trains and freeways / There’d be no distance that could hold us back," grabbed my heart again. Still, after enough listens I had to begrudgingly admit to myself that "The New Year" (and with time, a number of the other songs) was indeed fairly aurally pleasing, but that it was ageing quickly.
The real downers on this album are, well, the downer tracks. "Lightness," ironically named, possesses none, and while it does possess a fairly decent melody and thoroughly impressive atmosphere, sags on its depressed way out of the party, and barely makes it out of the door. The title track is so full of self-denying immobility that it makes sitting through its 8-minute, resigned length a task in extended disappointment. The more Gibbard chants "I want you so much closer," the more you feel like there’s nothing to be done but to close the door on him as he pleads. The piano line becomes stale, the initially powerful guitar melody fades out into weakness, the atmosphere weighs down with heavy oppression on even the most broken heart, the over-production adds a slickness that betrays its cracking soul, and the lyrical imagery eventually crumbles under its own crippling failed idealism. Gibbard even has to slow down his words to accommodate a dying pace. When the song tries to push forward at the end, it lets itself down and you as well, and frankly, it’s hard to know what to do after the 6th minute of repetitive anti-climax. By the eighth, even the most intent attention to the song is all but gone. "Passenger Seat" suffers the same fate over a shorter length, with lyrics that just can’t hold water on their own. I haven’t been alive nearly as long as Gibbard, and yet even I feel too old to listen to them: "When you feel embarrassed, I’ll be your pride / When you need directions, I’ll be your guide / For all time "
There is some saving grace here. "Title and Registration," while also anti-climactic, is full of that plucked acoustic soul that used to float DCFC’s boat. Its lyrics aren’t so hot, "The glove compartment / Is inaccurately named / And everybody knows it / So I’m proposing a swift orderly change," but the quirkiness of it alone is justification enough. The lyrics pick up, as does the song’s energy, with one of the few really good basslines on the album, and an angelically innocent glockenspiel before it ends with an admirable restraint. "Expo ’86," follows the best of DCFC trademarks, with a great melody, and that burst of undefeated hope that first manifests itself in a tentative guitar crescendo, before obliterating the ceiling and rising to the stratosphere with the fury of all of the album’s denied gumption, complemented by production flourishes that give it extra wings on its sandals, as Gibbard delivers the lines, "And it’s strange / But there all basically the same / So I don’t ask names anymore " It’s one of the albums most rousing moments. The others belong largely to "We Looked like Giants," which supernovas out from its sinister piano-led beginnings into a pristine, dark pop gem, replete with cascading, fighting guitars, another excellent bassline, and driving rhythm. It narrates the adolescent first love experiences we all remember, dipping in and out of its fantastic hooks before unloosing a primal guitar-driven emotional fury that drops back into a gorgeously haunted, if over-produced finale. It’s what we wanted, and we’re given it, if at near the end of the album.
On the one hand, I am glad that, despite my opinion, this album is getting some pretty uniform critical praise; Death Cab have been waiting for their desserts for a while. But it’s hard not to admit that the slope for them has been in the downward direction for a year or so, and the landscape hasn’t really changed. It depends on what kind of effort Gibbard is still willing to put in. As of now, the indicators aren’t so good; but that tinge of hope that flickers in this album is enough to keep my faith in Death Cab very much alive, if a little bruised.