Blue Cheer

Can art grow without fertilizer?

I have a theory that excessive sobriety and serious relationships can easily hamper an artist's potential. I know it's true with me; the focus I'll put into a relationship with a girl doesn't often leave me with as much creative inspiration. My favorite records and books are inspired by loneliness, frustration or rage -- that feeling of being about to fall off a precipice. In this troubled modern world, many of us want to hear angst in the tunes we rock, just to know someone else understands.

That's the hypothesis I'm using to account for the fact that Death Cab for Cutie's latest album, Plans, doesn't stand up to the band's previous magnum opus, Transatlanticism. Not that I know the boys in Death Cab outside of the interviews I've done with them and the articles I've read, but I know that Transatlanticism was born after songwriter/singer Ben Gibbard spent several years without a serious girlfriend; shortly after he wrote the album, he hooked up with his current girlfriend Joan, with whom he owns a house in Seattle.

Don't get me wrong -- I don't think Plans is a bad album. Plans just doesn't have the beginning-to-end coherency and genuine melancholy that Transatlanticism does. Granted, The Photo Album, which preceded Transatlanticism, isn't as coherent, either. Guitarist/producer Chris Walla agreed with me shortly after Transatlanticism was released that The Photo Album "feels like more a collection of songs that happen to be in the same place than it does an album."

Death Cab for Cutie could use a little more angst.
Autumn de Wilde
Death Cab for Cutie could use a little more angst.

Plans kicks off with "Marching Bands of Manhattan," a sprawling, earnest paean to a girl where Gibbard promises, "I'll pull the curtains and blinds and let the light in." It's followed by "Soul Meets Body," another optimistic wish to "let the sun wrap its arms around me." Both are beautiful pop/rock pieces of taffy, but they lack the edginess and feeling of dejection the band previously possessed.

Compare that to "The New Year," Transatlanticism's first track, where Gibbard sings, "So this is the new year, and I don't feel any different . . . and I have no resolutions." This frustration permeates the album from start to finish.

By any measure, matching the majestic ebb and flow of Transatlanticism and its charming sorrow would be a daunting challenge, so I'm not faulting the band for not quite making it. But if Plans -- the band's major-label debut after years of releasing albums on Seattle indie Barsuk -- is your first introduction to Seth Cohen's favorite band, you need to dig a little deeper into Death Cab's catalogue to fully grasp the amount of talent this four-piece has.

The first two records, You Can Play These Songs With Chords and Something About Airplanes, are mostly unremarkable, mostly because of Walla's still-developing production talents. They showed the band's potential for clever lyricism, but the songs didn't start to show musical depth and grandeur until 2000's We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes.

On We Have the Facts, "Employment Pages" is a premonition of what Transatlanticism would bring, with a tinkling, slow, atmospheric buildup. Gibbard's disaffection comes through in lines like, "So impressed with cocktail politics and obscure details . . . it was true, that I was truly failing." Similarly, "For What Reason," "405," "Company Calls," and the title track offer a songwriting magnificence that the band was just feeling its way into.

The Photo Album, while not as cohesive a record, brought standout tracks as well when it was released in 2001. As the name suggests, each song is like a snapshot of Death Cab's development, but they just don't seem closely related. "A Movie Script Ending" belongs in the band's pantheon of best songwriting accomplishments, with its breakbeat drums and choral buildup, as does "Styrofoam Plates," a story that begins with a father's ashes being thrown out to sea where the wind catches them and blows them into the narrator's eye.

After The Photo Album, Death Cab took some time off. Walla spent time producing artists like the Decemberists, Travis Morrison, and Nada Surf, while Gibbard worked on a side project called the Postal Service.

Gibbard's long-distance collaboration with Dntel's Jimmy Tamborello, the Postal Service sold more than 600,000 copies of the single album, Give Up, they released on Sub Pop. This electro-based little record far exceeded anyone's expectations, and has to be counted as a classic.

After a year or so on hiatus, Death Cab went to work on Transatlanticism, of which Gibbard told me shortly after it was released, "We just kind of built a theme and built the record out of the songs that I had that we'd started working on." It's an album about distance and yearning; when the title track finally ends the album with a chorus of 30 voices singing "I need you so much closer," it's goose-bump-inspiring.

On the new album, Plans, it's not that Gibbard lost any of his cleverness, but the sadness that's defined the band throughout its career is mostly missing -- and when it is there, it seems almost disingenuous. "What Sarah Said," about being in an emergency room that "reeks of piss and 409," waiting to hear about a loved one's condition, is a pretty song, but it seems like Gibbard's trying too hard to grasp at the edginess that came so easily to him previously. Its refrain, "So who's going to watch you die?", is just too much, selling short Gibbard's talent at crafting clever, pithy lyrics.

I'm hoping that, like on The Photo Album, the inconsistencies on Plans are simply a pendulum swing from majestic to simply above-average -- and that Death Cab will swing back again. I wouldn't want anyone to break up with his girlfriend just to write a good song, but I can't say I don't hope they've got a little more heartbreak going on when they record the next album.

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