I was 12 years old when I heard Death Cab for Cutie for the first time. Soon they became my band. They were the first concert I ever went to on my own, I would write Death Cab lyrics on my notebooks, and had an inappropriate obsession with Ben Gibbard.
It’s been over 10 years and many bands have come in and out of my life, but I’ll always have a soft spot for my first band, Death Cab for Cutie.
8. Codes and Keys
Even the most casual Death Cab for Cutie listener will know that the band thrives when it comes to heartbreak. Codes and Keys was released in the midst of Gibbard’s now defunct marriage to quirky “it girl,” actress Zooey Deschanel. Codes and Keys results as a collection of 11 lackluster and overly sentimental tracks about being in love and finding yourself.
Codes and Keys opens with “Home is a Fire” – a song that has potential but never builds up and hits a stalemate. A well-fitting theme for the rest of the album. The title track “Codes and Keys” shines with it’s backing orchestra, and protruding drum lines, as Gibbard gently sings “we are alive” in the chorus. The high point came and went by the second track.
A series of snooze fest’s come and go, while “Doors Unlocked and Open” teases us with interesting instrumentation and a solid chorus. This preceding arguably one of the most overrated Death Cab songs of all time “You are a Tourist.” Piano ballad “Unobstructed Views” appears as a failed attempt to recapture the beauty of their 2004 hit “Transatlanticsm”
The closing track “Stay Young, Go Dancing” was clearly inspired by his newlywed Deschanel. It’s overly affectionate lyrical content, reeking of sunshine, is entirely skippable.
Death Cab for Cutie are known for their guitar heavy compositions, and they departure that theme with Codes and Keys. While I admire them for focusing on keyboards and a string section, Codes and Keys just could not get it right.
Best Track: Codes and Keys
Worst Track: You are a Tourist
7. Narrow Stairs
If Codes and Keys was Death Cab’s love album, this one was their version of Pablo Picasso’s Black Period. Gibbard has later admitted that there’s a level of “self-loathing” in Narrow Stairs and that he’s a bit “embarrassed” of it now.
The opening track “Bixby Canyon Bridge” starts off with guitarist Chris Walla’s tremolo picking technique, while Gibbard vulnerably sings about his time at a cabin in Big Sur, California. The location not only in which this album was recorded recorded, but incoincidently the location of Gibbard’s biggest literary influence once lived, Jack Kerouac.
“Your New Twin Sized Bed” and Beatles knock-off “You Can Do Better Than Me” are perfect examples of the emotional torture Gibbard felt at this time period in his life. They are songs about defeat yet coming to terms with the state of things.
Narrow Stairs is all over the place. The first single “I Will Possess Your Heart” is reminiscent of a 1970’s jam band, while “Talking Bird” is a sweet throwback to a song you’d hear at a 1950’s prom. “Cath” feeling like a 1990’s power pop band, Narrow Stairs can’t quite find it’s identity.
Best track: Bixby Canyon Bridge
Worst track: Pity and Fear
Sometimes love disappears without explanation and this is the case Gibbard poses in what I like to call Death Cab for Cutie’s “divorce album” Kintsugi.
Kintsugi is Death Cab for Cutie’s most recent release, after 4 long years of nothing. A lot happened in that time, Ben Gibbard went on a reunion tour with his iconic band The Postal Service, founding guitarist and producer Chris Walla left the band to pursue other musical projects, Gibbard released a solo album, bassist Nick Harmer became a father, and of course: The Divorce.
“How could something so fair be so cruel?” Gibbard asks in the chorus of “Black Sun,” the first single off Kintsugi. A question posed clearer than daylight. While the album opener “No Room in Frame” deceptive melodic jangling will trick you into thinking it’s a happy song, lyrically, it will break your heart.
“Kintsugi”is a Japanese art form that consists of repairing broken pottery and creating something new from it, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes. “Little Wanderer” stands out as it’s airy guitar swoops you into the woes of a long distance relationship, whilst Gibbard sips some tea in “Ingenue,” a track about a young actress whose brightest years are behind her.
Overall, Kintsugi’s intimacy and vulnerability save it from the lackluster and uninspiring arrangements.
Best track: No Room in Frame
Worst track: Hold No Guns
In 2004 indie darlings Death Cab for Cutie did the unfathomable: they left their longtime independent record label Barsuk, and signed to the major label Atlantic Records.
The controversial move ignited outrage with their hardcore fan base. They were called sellouts and some purists event decided to boycott the band entirely. Death Cab achieved their first main stream success with their previous music release Transatlanticism, and the record offers flew in. Death Cab stated the major label would still give them creative freedom and they encouraged fans to download their music for free online to discourage the corporate economics of a major label.
Despite Death Cab claiming “they would not change” after their record label move, Plans, was definitely different than their previous work – but that was not necessarily a bad thing.
Plans is a collection of finely polished, easily palatable, radio friendly tunes. Opener “Marching Bands of Manhattan” understated guitar work paired with Gibbard’s vulnerability prove to be effective.
Piano heavy tracks such as “Differen’t Names for the Same Thing,” “Brothers on a Hotel Bed,” and “What Sarah Said” are beautifully cohesive and imaginative. The groovy bassline of “Summer Skin” lingers as Gibbard reminisces of his adolescence.
The best thing about Plans is that there is a song for everyone. Death Cab will be eternally forced to play “Crooked Teeth,” “Soul Meets Body,” and “I’ll Follow you Into the Dark” for the rest of their musical careers due to their popularity. Yet, these are the songs that are the most unauthentically Death Cab.
Best track: Marching Bands of Manhattan
Worst track: Crooked Teeth
4. Something About Airplanes
Death Cab for Cutie were in their early 20’s when their debut record Something About Airplanes was released. Despite their young age, this album was years ahead of it’s time. Clearly influenced with a “Pacific Northwest Sound” like bands Modest Mouse and Sleater-Kinney before them, Something About Airplanes has a distinct influence, but is unique enough to stand on it’s own.
Something About Airplanes grittiness and lo-fi vibes set the precedent for what’s to come in their later musical achievements. Gibbard’s soft voice is complimentary coupled with the distorted guitars blaring in tracks like “Bend to Squares” and “Fake Frowns.”
Although they have strayed for glossier and more radio palatable sound in recent years, Something About Airplanes demonstrates where the band originated and how far they’ve come.
Best track: President of What?
Worst track: Sleep Spent
Every true Death Cab for Cutie fan will always have a soft spot for this modern day classic. Transatlanticsm is what catapulted them into the mainstream vernacular and for good reason.
It’s fitting that this album begins with a track called “The New Year” considering this record is the one that brought Death Cab their new era of fans, thanks to Seth Cohen of “The O.C.” and MySpace.com.
Ben Gibbard will always be a story teller first and a songwriter second and that has never been clearer than the narratives that unfold in Transatlanticism. “Title and Registration” is a perfect example as Gibbard eloquently relates a traffic stop to an old relationship. The hypnotic guitar riff and simplistic drum track are imperative highlights to this record.
The title track “Transatlanticsm” is an eight minute long masterpiece, as Gibbard declares “I need you so much closer“ to his long distance paramour. While “Tiny Vessels” tells an opposite story in which he is pretty much being an asshole to the subject.
Transatlicism’s diversity makes this an easy listen every time. “We Looked Like Giants” long instrumental give’s the record some needed grittiness, whilst “A Lack of Color” is simple and bare. It’s all we need.
Best track: Title and Registration
Worst track: Expo ’86
2. The Photo Album
The Photo Album is Death Cab for Cutie’s third studio album. By this time, they have grown as a band, they’ve carved out their quintessential sound, and they’re not going anywhere.
What makes Death Cab unique is their ability to juxtapose catchy melodies with morose lyrical content and The Photo Album makes no exception. This album is progressive and guitar heavy yet it still contains sweet elements.
“I loved you Guinevere,” Gibbard proclaims breakup song “We Laugh Indoors,” as the distorted guitars and cloudy microphones. In “Why’d You Want to Live Here,” the band begrudgingly visits Los Angeles and describes it’s flaws. Gibbard revisits the topic of Los Angeles in “Ghost of Beverley Drive” on their 2015 album Kintsugi.
The Photo Album is a quintessential road trip album. From the opening track, to it’s romantic closer “Cony Island.” It’s an album you want to pop into the CD player with nothing but the road ahead of you.
Best track: A Movie Script Ending
Worst track: Information Travels Faster
1. We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes
There are many milestones that come along with growing older. You grow apart from old friends, everyone you know starts to get married and have kids, and there’s the first big break up. And that’s what We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes is about.
The album opener “Title Track,” a nostalgic song about questionable decisions and wish fulfillment. Gibbard runs into an old acquaintance at a party and a one night stand ensues. The song starts off distorted and far off but after the first verse, it clears up. A production choice that seems fitting.
Throughout We Have the Facts.. Gibbard is in pursuance of a relationship with the woman from song one. By the second track, “Employment Pages,” they have settled in a quaint relationship and the mundanities of everyday life. In “For What Reason” Gibbard finds out she cheated on him. “This will be the last you hear from me.” he threatens as the guitars jangle in this bloodthirsty song about heartbreak and revenge.
Up next? Gibbard hits the road in “Lowell, MA” AND “405,” Another reference to Jack Kerouac.
The highlight of We Have the Facts hits during “Company Calls” and “Company Calls Epilogue.” In the first of the series, Gibbard receives an invitation to his ex-flames wedding. By the “Epilogue” he crashes the wedding, a reference to another huge influence of Ben Gibbards, “The Graduate.”
“Company Calls Epilogue” is arguably the best song in Death Cab for Cutie’s catalogue. It’s vulnerable and Gibbard’s angst is relatable. During the last chorus, Gibbard is left alone with an acoustic guitar. It’s naked and will give you all the feels.
We Have the Facts is everything album needs to be. It’s versatile, unique, and has a story to tell. Which is what Death Cab for Cutie does best.
Best track: Company Calls Epilogue