ISSUE #8 FEB 06

Will

Death Cab For Cutie
"Plans"

31st August 2005
reviewer: Will
rating: 3 out of 5
published by: Atlantic
released: 29th August 2005
  1. Marching Bands Of Manhattan
  2. Soul Meets Body
  3. Summer Skin
  4. Different Names For The Same Thing
  5. I Will Follow You Into The Dark
  6. Your Heart Is An Empty Room
  7. Someday You Will Be Loved
  8. Crooked Teeth
  9. What Sarah Said
  10. Brothers On A Hotel Bed
  11. Stable Song

What first made me sit up and take notice of Death Cab For Cutie was their restraint: the ability to strip a song down to the barest essentials and still keep an engaging melody. ‘Lightness’, from Transatlanticism, is basically just bass and drums, with a guitar deployed sparingly; ‘We Laugh Indoors’, from The Photo Album, is carried almost entirely by the drums; the chorus of ‘Wait’, an early Secret Stars cover, is so empty as to be almost non-existant. What they left out is at least as important as what they kept in.

But this restraint is less in evidence on Plans, Death Cab's first album for a major label. In the hands of Chris Walla, lead guitarist/erstwhile producer, the band have made a move towards more lush production. This is by no means a bad thing; it just makes the songs sound like less of an experiment than before, and shifts the emphasis from style to songwriting. There are moments of truly mainstream rock here (a description which I don't think Death Cab previously deserved), particularly ‘Your Heart Is An Empty Room’ which sounds startlingly like U2.

Of course it's not all straight-ahead rock; there's enough variation here to keep things from sounding stale. Singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard's solo acoustic performance on ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark’ serves as a pause for breath in the middle of the album, and lead single ‘Soul Meets Body’ is a punchy slice of indie-pop (with a fantastic chorus to boot). Things move along at a fine pace from the start, with the final three songs lending a typically Death Cab pensive finish.

There's a noticeably increased use of electronics, possibly a hangover from the Postal Service album, as evinced by the fluid mix of Protools and traditional instruments on ‘Summer Skin’ or the sudden jump from lo- to hi-fi during ‘Different Names For The Same Thing’. In fact much of the album is awash in ambient synths - it's obvious Walla and the band have enjoyed layering this album with sound, filling in the gaps between the usual guitars/drums/piano setup.

Thankfully Gibbard's lyrics are as strong as fans have come to expect, which comes as a relief after his oddly weak Postal Service side-project. Just as the band's sound has settled down, so Gibbard is thinking about maturity, ageing and mortality. The lyrical thread running through Plans is that of lovers growing old together, a subject that's handled deftly on tracks like ‘Brothers On A Hotel Bed’ and ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark’. The key lyric lies at the centre of the brooding track ‘What Sarah Said’: “Love is watching someone die.”

The oddest moment, and one that's stirred up some controversy among fans, is ‘Someday You Will Be Loved’. The song can be summarised thus: "Aw, honey, I know I dumped you, but someday you'll get over me and - I know this sounds crazy, but it's true - some other guy will fancy you. Maybe." It's hard to believe Gibbard is being ironic and self-deprecating, so he ends up sounding conceited and smug. It's a wonder the rest of the band didn't say something, and just imagine the poor girl he's singing about - she must be listening to this and fucking fuming. I know I would be.

Death Cab stated in a recent interview that the only thing that would change in the move from indie to major label is the Atlantic Records logo on the cover of this album. And that's true, in a sense that the band may not have intended. Little has changed here. Whereas the development between each previous release was audible, Plans is essentially a more ordinary companion piece to Transatlanticism. They've taken risks and tried new things, but nothing to compare to the diversity of that album.

Don't get me wrong, Plans is a strong set and will be on heavy rotation by fans and Seth Cohen-influenced newcomers alike, but it's hard not to feel that Death Cab are treading water. Still, taking a moment to catch their breath is forgivable given the sudden rise to fame the band have enjoyed, and when they're making music this good, who cares?