Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard is still inspired
A gift for melody—as a songwriter and/or singer—can be both a blessing and a
curse. A blessing because there are few pleasures in pop music more satisfying.
A curse because such pleasure can so easily lapse into maudlin sentimentality.
Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard has this gift, and on the band's new album,
Narrow Stairs, he seeks ways to enjoy melody's gratification while
warding off its schmaltz.
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The album opens with
producer Chris Walla's nervous electric-guitar strum and Gibbard's high tenor
warbling fetchingly about hiking beneath the "Bixby Canyon Bridge" in Big Sur.
When he sings about hoping to hear the ghost of someone whose "soul had died"
there (maybe Jack Kerouac, whose nightmarish novel, Big Sur, was based on
events in that canyon), Gibbard's song teeters on the edge of mawkishness.
It pulls back, however, when the singer realizes he's not
hearing any ghosts, just the babble of the creek and the whistle of the wind. "I
cursed myself for being surprised," he confesses, "that this didn't play like it
did in my mind," and with that, the quiet, melodic vocal is suddenly assaulted
by a stomping, hard-rock riff as if a dreamer has been knocked upside the head
by the two-by-four of reality. The melody doesn't disappear, but now it has to
fight to be heard.
There are similar confrontations
between pretty tunes and distorted noise, between romantic feelings and harsh
consequences throughout the disc. Few tunes are prettier than "No Sunlight,"
which begins with a McCartneyesque lilt over a charming guitar arpeggio as
Gibbard sings of lying in the grass beneath a blue sky as a young man. In
subsequent verses, however, he describes clouds slowly filling the sky, blotting
out that early innocence. As he does, weird guitar effects begin swirling around
the melody and eventually pull the original optimism down a hole of feedback.
"Cath …" recycles the old showbiz trope of watching a
once-wild ex-lover marry someone stolid and boring (cf. George Cukor's The
Philadelphia Story and Elvis Costello's "Allison"). In the Death Cab
version, a punchy, bottom-heavy beat backs the vengefulness of Gibbard's
description of the bride—unable to "relax with his hands on the small of her
back / And as the flash bulbs burst, she holds a smile / Like someone would hold
a crying child."
When the bridge arrives after the
second verse, the bristling guitar chords and booming bass are replaced by
lovely guitar, and the bitter accusations give way to a quiet admission of
sympathy: "You said your vows and you closed the door / On so many men who would
have loved you more." It's clear that the singer is one of those men, and when
the lacerating guitars return, they slash at him as much as her. It's the kind
of sobering catharsis you'll never hear from Coldplay, but it's also the kind of
clearly articulated narrative you'll never hear from Radiohead.
Gibbard is at his best when he tethers his catchy tunes to lyrics
grounded in specifics—a creek beneath a Big Sur bridge, the receiving line at a
wedding, a closet full of clothes that "hang like ghosts of the people I've
been," an old friend so disillusioned by romance that he or she tosses out the
old queen-size mattress and replaces it with "Your New Twin Size Bed." He runs
into trouble when he starts singing lyrics as abstract and vague as those in
"Pity and Fear," "The Ice Is Getting Thinner" and "I Will Possess Your Heart."
When there's nothing specific to pull him back to earth, his words drift off
into cliché; the band's pretty-versus-harsh arrangements seem merely clever, and
the hooks get orphaned. And because the harmonies aren't all that sophisticated,
they can't pick up the slack.
But when Gibbard gets
out of his own head, the confrontation between his tuneful optimism and the real
world can yield an exhilarating dramatic tension. This is most obvious on
"Grapevine Fires," which begins with a terrific push-and-pull drum pattern,
chiming electric piano and a vivid description of fire racing through coastal
vineyards. When Gibbard suggests that it's only a matter of time "before we all
burn" in some ecological catastrophe, he suffuses that phrase in sunny
He takes his girlfriend and her
daughter to a cemetery to watch the nearby fires, and the listener might worry
that he's proposing a form of domestic escapism. But he makes no effort to deny
the threat of possible "end days"; it could very well all turn out badly, he
admits. But he also refuses to deny the very real pleasures of a lover and a
child. Death Cab for Cutie juxtaposes these two truths the same way it conjoins
the intoxicating melodies with distorted guitars, seething synths and metal-funk
bass, achieving a balance of pleasure and frustration that closely resembles the
world in which we live.