Well, we thought it might be fun to do a little debate here about Death Cab. They are a band that has gone through many shifts in sound while always remaining enjoyable, and everyone here has had a love-affair with them at some point or other in our lives. After a lengthy discussion, we decided that the debate should be modified: no one would be allowed to choose Transatlanticism. It’s not that everyone here believes that Transatlanticism is their best record, but we all agreed that it was too much of a go-to answer, and chances favoured that if three people decided to go with other albums, then one person would probably feel they needed to rep Transatlanticism just because…well because someone had to. So with that said, let’s take a look at what Death Cab For Cutie has to offer.
I mean, I guess I’m going to be the certified jackass here – Plans is not only my favorite Death Cab album, but quite possibly a top 5 all-time selection for me. It never grows tired or old, and I can throw it on at any given second, on any day of the year, and still be moved in ways not made possible by any album to have come along before or since. I will admit, I was extremely late to the party – fellow staff writer Casey introduced me to Transatlanticism back in 2007 when we were room-mates in Aliso Viejo, CA. I could not believe what I was hearing, or how it had ever escaped me for so many years in the first place. Since that moment, Death Cab for Cutie was, and continues to be, something of a very special band to me; and while Transatlantacism is certainly a masterpiece in it’s own right, Plans would cement my feelings forever. Start to finish, the album is truly just that – an album. You do not skip around from song to song when listening to Plans. Rather, you hit play and simply let it take you somewhere special over the course of its 11 magnificently composed tracks. Whether it be album opener ‘Marching Bands of Manhattan,’ or closer ‘Stable Song,’ Ben Gibbard and company get it right every step along the way. ’What Sarah Said’ is beautifully heartbreaking, not to mention one of my favorite songs of all time.
I was torn, like that Natalie Imbruglia song. Nostalgia said, “C’mon buddy, We Have The Facts was soooo good, and you used to always say it was the perfect wind-down record for after a show or a party on the drive home”…and it still is. Upon re-listening to WHTFAWVS, I still love that album, no matter what Chris might say about it (I secretly think he’s trying to get me to punch him when he talks). But in the end, nostalgia was over-ruled, and I had to give it up to Plans. It takes all of the things that DCFC does well and blends them perfectly. It is the pinnacle of the signature sound that they have lately been moving away from. Every track is deeply moving. ‘Different Names For The Same Thing’ remains the best opening song to a live set I’ve ever seen, and it still gives me chills, even as I listen to it now on the album. Ben Gibbard’s lyrics are always powerful, but Plans holds some of his best work. The line, “And it came to me then that every plan is a tiny prayer to father time, as I stared at my shoes in the ICU that wreaked of piss and 409. Then I rationed my breaths as I said to myself that I’d already taken too much today, as each descending peak on the LCD took you a little farther from me” is one of the best lyrics I have ever heard, ever, and it is laid over a top 10 all-time song. That song makes it for me. Death Cab has been more epic, subtle, pretty, catchy, mellow, and rocking on other albums, but never so well-balanced as they are on Plans.
This is a ludicrously difficult choice to make. Every Death Cab album is stylistically different and I have had love affairs of varying lengths with all of them (except for We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes. I voted no. I voted no with every fibre of my body). After careful consideration and copious re-listens, I am going with The Photo Album. I must admit that I was underwhelmed by this album at first, but the more I listen to it, the more I like it. This album is musically brilliant. It is far more stripped down than their later albums but there is beauty in the simplicity. Songs like ‘Blacking Out the Friction,’ ‘I Was a Kaleidoscope,’ and ‘A Movie Script Ending’ show the band’s uncanny ability to make very sad songs sound happier than a Sunday afternoon picnic, while songs like ‘Information Travels Faster’ and ‘Styrofoam Plates’ show that they can do slow and sad just as well as quick and cheerful. And then there is ‘Steadier Footing,’ which is a tremendously beautiful vignette of human emotion that is equal parts lyrical content and musical accompaniment. It is hope, regret, desire, and fear in 115 words and 1:47 of your time. Speaking of powerful lyrics, this album is one of Ben Gibbard’s strongest lyrical outings. He is strong on everything he does, but this album is full of tiny poems that capture a wide spectrum of emotions. I offer for your consideration: “I put on my overcoat and walked into winter; my teeth chattered rhythms. / And they were grouped in twos and threes, like a Morse code message was sent from me to me. [...] And I was a kaleidoscope, the snow on my lenses distorting the image of what was only one of you, / and I didn’t know which one to address as all your lips moved.” This is the reason that this album stands out for me. Every song is a painting full of profound shapes and colours, and yet every song makes me sing along.
I have had many debates within my head about which Death Cab for Cutie album I like the most. It’s not that I’m crazy, but that I don’t speak the language where I live, so I HAVE to have these kinds of conversations alone. I look myself in the mirror, put on my fake moustache, and hammer out ideas until things get heated and I begin to hurl insults at myself. But no matter how angry moustache-me has made me, he is always right - You Can Play These Songs With Chords is my favourite DCFC album because it gave us a taste of who they would become; it is stripped down and raw, but it gives you glimpses of their later albums. The album seems incredibly bare, but as with many things Death Cab, the lyrics add feeling to your listening experience that goes beyond the music and words on their own. You Can Play These Songs With Chords stands out from their later work in that it features darker lyrics alongside their standard depressing, happy, and nostalgic fare. For example, in the song ‘Champagne From a Paper Cup,’ Ben Gibbard sings, “I think I’m drunk enough to drive you home now.” We hear a lot of self-deprecation from Death Cab these days, but this album was often coloured by anger, and I enjoy that. You Can Play These Songs With Chords has some tracks that make you feel like Ben is back in the studio recording on an 8-track under the name All-Time Quarterback again, but you can also see where Transatlanticism and Plans came from. This is what started it all.