Death Cab For Cutie let me down.
So yeah, there's a new Death Cab For Cutie album, called "Plans", and it's their major label debut (on Atlantic, to be exact). I'm sure Seth Cohen from that TV show "The OC" is suitably stoked, and will be mentioning it at least once during the new season. That's great for Death Cab, it really is. But the problem for me and for the other longtime listeners is that they seem to have dropped the ball where actual songwriting is concerned. "Plans", to me, sounds like what would have happened if Death Cab were too busy with other commitments to bother writing their new album themselves and farmed the job out to their favorite Death Cab tribute act. What's more, it's a Death Cab tribute act that misses the point of all of the elements of Death Cab For Cutie's music that separated them from the pack, that I loved when I started listening to them, and neglects all of them.
Instead, they emphasize all the stereotypical pop elements of their music, to the exclusion of almost everything else. The lyrics that used to present a three-dimensional picture of actual persons, situations, and feelings now describe the most hackneyed cliches with the same sort of wide-eyed lack of delicacy that makes listening to Dashboard Confessional so painful for anyone over 17. In fact, speaking of Dashboard Confessional, I feel like the blame for the worst song here could be laid mostly at their feet. "I Will Follow You Into the Dark", which features Ben Gibbard doing a solo turn on acoustic guitar and vocal, features the sort of lyrics that teenagers write in love notes to their 10th grade significant others and cringe over when remembering those moments a decade later. There's nothing romantic about the concept of death, especially once you start getting a little older and having friends and relatives die on you. But for teenagers, the romantic possibilities of the subject seem to be endless, which as far as I've always thought comes from a misplaced desire to get laid more than anything else. For Ben Gibbard, a guy who has always seemed to have the talent and originality necessary to rise above cliche lyrical approaches, to spit out a song like this, and on his sixth album with Death Cab For Cutie of all times, speaks to me less of inspiration and more of a desire for a crossover hit. It's pretty pathetic.
The only song that really works for me on this album is "What Sarah Said", which is not so coincidentally the only song that continues with the experimentation with pop song form that Death Cab have done in the past. Here they follow in the footsteps of "Transatlanticism"'s "We Looked Like Giants" and its title track into an exploration of repetition. The ending of the song is drawn out for several minutes of the band playing the same riff over and over as it slowly grows fainter and the instruments drop out one by one. By the end of the song, all that can be heard is a quiet piano. This section of the song, mixed with the obvious emotion of the song's lyrics (which are perhaps the best on the album), about watching a loved one die, does a lot to pull the band's and the listener's heart into the moment.
But this is just about the only place that happens. Some of the other songs have potential, especially lyrically. "Soul Meets Body" has some good riffs, but both it and "Marching Bands of Manhattan" are damaged by the fact that their big payoff choruses are unforgivably cliche. "Crooked Teeth" and "Brothers On A Hotel Bed" show some inspiration lyrically, and even "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" has one decent verse out of four, but overall the songs on "Plans" just don't do what Death Cab used to be able to do. In particular, the ambient textures that always sat just under the surface of the music in their early days are gone, destroyed by a combination of more conventional songwriting and more conventional production. I can't help but think that part of what drew me into early albums like "We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes" (still my favorite record of theirs) and "Something About Airplanes" was the slightly unpolished feel of the production, which placed a thin layer that wasn't quite static but wasn't quite silence either overtop of all of the songs. Having to hear Death Cab's pop hooks through the tiniest bit of recorder grot kept them interesting, even exciting, but now, with everything polished and clearly heard, they just seem bland. This isn't to say that the production is the whole problem--I'm pretty sure "We Have The Facts" would have sounded just as good with this kind of high dollar production sheen as it did in its original form. What really hurts Death Cab For Cutie here is a lack of inspiration. This album's epitaph is best taken from an earlier Death Cab lyric: "I rushed this. We moved too fast." Hopefully they'll learn from this misstep and do a better job next time.