Any critic going in-depth on Death Cab For Cutie faces an impossible standard: nothing we say will ever displace the following as the final word on the band, courtesy of The O.C.’s Summer Roberts — “it’s like one guitar and a whole lot of complaining.” I can’t really hold a grudge against Summer here. Being inextricably linked to perhaps the defining document of indie rock’s early-aughts mainstreaming helped Death Cab far more than it ever hurt them, and besides, Seth Cohen ended up marrying Summer anyway.
If I do take offense, it’s because Summer was off the mark in two regards: Death Cab almost never sounds like one guitar, as the dual-six string interplay between frontman Ben Gibbard and erstwhile producer Chris Walla is one of their most immediately identifiable characteristics. And while Gibbard has been known to pine, reflect, gush and occasionally lash out, I never really heard complaining. At least in the sense of the “complaining” that somehow encompassed the entirety of nu-metal, emo, pop-punk, and just about every other form of popular rock music that was happening outside of New York or the UK, the traditional centers of credibility. There are definitely Death Cab songs on the ensuing list about hating your parents, hating your hometown, wishing a girl liked you back, and wishing that it didn’t matter so much to your sense of self. These matters are also the basis for a gigantic swath of pop music, which after 25 years, includes Death Cab For Cutie.
From their proper debut, 1998’s Something About Airplanes, Death Cab have somehow managed to level up with each subsequent album, earning their critical breakthrough, their first indie hit, their first true classic, their major-label debut which brought about their first Grammy nomination and their signature song, their first No. 1 album and… of course, that doesn’t even include Gibbard’s side project The Postal Service, whose sole album Give Up is the second-best-selling album in Sub Pop history, behind only Nirvana’s Bleach.
The 2010s haven’t been as kind — Gibbard called 2011’s Codes And Keys his least favorite Death Cab album and Walla left the band during the recording of their next LP, 2015’s Kintsugi. The quality of their albums has dipped dramatically, but nowadays, a new Death Cab For Cutie album is virtually guaranteed to debut in the top 10 and have its single played on whatever’s left of your local rock radio station. And yet, even though they play sports arenas and have a full-time keyboardist with a ponytail, Death Cab still sound impervious to trends, or at least truly disastrous decision-making. They’re still carrying themselves as if they were a humble indie rock project from a tiny Washington college town. If you’re just catching up, here’s one man’s choice for Death Cab’s 30 best songs.
Bonus Cut: “All Is Full of Love” (The Stability EP, 2002)
For better or worse, Death Cab For Cutie never back down from an intimidating cover song in a live setting –was they’ve played “Fell On Black Days” as a tribute to Chris Cornell in their first Seattle show after his death and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” as a tribute to… you’d have to ask Gibbard. But they’re just as bold when they make them an official part of the Death Cab discography. They were still known as a fairly humble and fairly wimpy indie rock when they took on Bjork’s overwhelming “All Is Full Of Love,” but delivered it with enough confidence to fool the casual listener into hearing it as a perfect fit within Death Cab For Cutie’s most experimental official release. The sentiment of the title takes on a threatening undertone as Michael Schorr contributes a rumbling, d’n’b-style beat that would fit anywhere else on Homogenic except for “All Is Full Of Love,” which is drumless in its original incarnation. I guess you could consider this cheating — release an official cover of a Bjork song and it’ll almost certainly be one of the 30 best you’ve put your name on. But the transformative take on “All Is Full Of Love” is some of the best evidence of what made Death Cab For Cutie far more than “Gibbard and some other guys.”
30. “Summer Years” (Thank You For Today, 2018)
For stretches of 2018, I had to drive a vehicle with no bluetooth capability or even an aux cord — meaning that my only option was 91X, San Diego’s premiere rock radio station. 90% of the time, I was guaranteed to tune in during a Sublime, Red Hot Chili Peppers or No Doubt song, or maybe Imagine Dragons or a band that I assumed was Imagine Dragons but turned out to be Cold War Kids or Foster the People having no resemblance to how I remember them from 2011. But I do recall having my ear turned by a song that sorta kinda made me think of Death Cab, except it was a little slicker, more British maybe? Maybe this was one of those bands that get plum slots in the middle of giant festival posters and rack up tens of millions of Spotify plays and zero reviews at publications I typically read. As it turns out, it was actually Death Cab For Cutie’s “Northern Lights,” the least grating but also the most anodyne single from Thank You For Today, an album that confirmed the band’s post-Walla transition into an amphitheater-filling legacy act. This isn’t the worst-case scenario — if their new singles get added to Clear Channel playlists on general principle, it could very well lead someone to their 2000s output. But I’d imagine “Summer Years,” the strongest track from the otherwise insipid Thank You For Today, is not coincidentally the one that gives hints at the rewards of a deeper dive. It’s essentially a rewrite of Plans’ “Summer Skin” with fewer awkward phrasings, a more propulsive bass line, and a tricky rhythm reminiscent of Michael Schorr’s more adventurous drum work. If Death Cab are gonna be pure fan service going forward, “Summer Years” at least promises that they can remember the fans that got them through the leaner times.
29. “Styrofoam Plates” (The Photo Album, 2001)
If there’s any downside to the unmistakable distinctiveness of Ben Gibbard’s vocals and lyrical style, it’s that he can never truly take the focus off himself. Even when he’s clearly in character, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else as the narrator of a Death Cab For Cutie song — you assume that it’s someone who looks like him, or at the very least, a Death Cab For Cutie fan. I don’t know if the poor soul of “Styrofoam Plates” ever sought comfort in We Have the Facts And We’re Voting Yes and I kinda hope they didn’t — they’ve had it hard enough already. The first image is high tragicomedy pulled from The Big Lebowski, its narrator trying to dispose of a deceased’s ashes only to have them blow back in their face. But from there on, Gibbard almost manages to one-up Isaac Brock when it comes to conveying the unmistakable sensory details of lower-class struggles in the Pacific Northwest – not just the scent of “cheap wine and pity” or the image of a charity Thanksgiving dinner but the way “the suburbs of Denver” can feel like the edge of the universe, close enough to the big city to realize how far away you really are. Yet “Styrofoam Plates” never comes off as poverty tourism — instead, it serves as a shorthand for the rehabilitation of evil men after they’ve died, applicable to any number of abusive artists or political monsters whose reputation is softened by the passage of time and the pervasive “gotta hear both sides” mindset of modern journalism. And so what stands out about “Styrofoam Plates” isn’t the rage, but the impotence of it — during the final verse, Death Cab sound incapable of actually rawking as much simply stewing, watching people pay tribute to a man who caused nothing but misery to those closest to him and realizing there’s nothing you can do. There’s some stiff competition, but “Styrofoam Plates” is the most pathetic anyone’s ever been in a Death Cab song.
28. “Brothers On A Hotel Bed” (Plans, 2005)
“Brothers On A Hotel Bed” is the saddest song on Death Cab’s saddest album – no mean feat, since the one right before it is six minutes long, begins in an ICU, peaks with Gibbard singing “love is watching someone die,” and ends with him repeating “so who’s gonna watch you die?” over and over again. But while watching the elderly pass away can be devastating, everyone eventually has to accept the finality and inevitability of death. Meanwhile, all couples believe that they’re gonna be the ones who beat the odds and continue to love each other with the same passion as when they first met, even as their beauty fades along with their ability to change. Thanks to its indelible titular simile, one that’s unprecedented in pop music and hasn’t been used since, Gibbard doesn’t have to go into much further detail. It’s harder to find an appropriate sonic equivalent for this kind of ache, and Death Cab do away with recognizable guitars almost completely on “Brothers On A Hotel Bed,” its lachrymose keys and shifty drum pattern imagining a more unplugged version of The Postal Service or maybe just a sleepless night in silk sheets; luxury and emptiness in equal measure.
27. “I Was A Kaleidoscope” (The Photo Album, 2001)
Snow gets nowhere near as much airtime in breakup songs as sun or rain or wind, the weather phenomena that amplify and dramatize any situation. A heavy snowfall tends to drastically reduce and flatten our field of vision — people shrink within themselves for warmth, huddled in their overcoats and stuck in their houses, the lawns and sidewalks and streets rendered an undifferentiated white landscape where every square inch can be used for tackle football or sledding. This is where Gibbard finds himself in “I Was A Kaleidoscope,” sending morse code messages to himself, the snow on his glasses creating a distorted smear that leads him to believe he’s getting his heart broken three times over. The deceptively jaunty riff lends an air of tragicomedy to the rumpled chump in a Bruegel-like setting of kids off from school being chased by frustrated parents, blind to the man having the worst day of his life.
26. “Amputations” (Something About Airplanes, 1998)
“Amputations” begins with a recording of motivational speaker Glenn W. Turner that initially seems like a gag, a transmission from indie rock’s final days of irony: “If we seem nutty to you and if we seem like an oddball to you, just remember one thing — the mighty oak tree was once a nut just like me.” It’s damn near non sequitur as “Amputations” lurches forward with a teeth-gnashing anger atypical for Death Cab For Cutie ca. 1998. Gibbard admonishes a woman too eager to change for and the man who’s never going to appreciate it anyway, a backhanded way of teaching “to thine own self be true.” At least that’s what I’d assume based on the Turner quote that ends “Amputations”: “If everybody’s making fun of you and criticizing you / Then you know you’re on the right track / ‘Cause most people ain’t got it.” More likely, it’s Death Cab giving a pep talk to an unheralded version of themselves that served as torchbearers of indie rock’s final days of sounding like college rock — heaving like a Built To Spill epic, gritty like Heatmiser, acerbic like Pavement or Archers of Loaf. Something About Airplanes is a fine album, maybe even a minor classic — but complete newcomers to Death Cab probably shouldn’t start at the beginning. Become familiar with their essential works and it’s easier to understand Something About Airplanes as the last time Death Cab were trying to figure out who they wanted to be.
25. “Army Corps Of Architects” (You Can Play These Songs With Chords, 2002)
2018’s “Gold Rush” may very well be the most grating Death Cab For Cutie song ever made – the title is repeated 67 times over an endlessly chugging beat, the chorus is one of Gibbard’s most cliched, it’s all lavishly and anonymously produced despite a Yoko Ono sample. And yet, it’s still “old school Death Cab” in its subject matter, Gibbard staring out at Seattle’s Capitol Hill and seeing greedy prospectors still trying to strip a gutted mine. It’s a theme that’s run through his writing throughout the past three decades — see “The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive” or 2001’s The Photo Album, where Gibbard moved to Los Angeles for a relationship and complained about how much he hated it there, a love letter to home written in backhand. Or, just start from the beginning on “Army Corps Of Architects,” which witnessed the looming tech boom and saw a half-empty urn, one that would be better served being razed to the ground and started anew. The rage doesn’t immediately come across in the slowcore trudge, more of a wish to stop the clocks and enjoy a place that will only get worse with time. Throughout the past 25 years of personnel changes, brushes with fame, massively successful side projects, No. 1 albums, Grammy nominations, and celebrity weddings, only two things have remained constant in Death Cab For Cutie — Ben Gibbard and his desperate longing to live in the Seattle he once loved.
24. “Stability” (The Stability EP, 2002)
Look, nothing against “Stable Song” — most of the time, it’s my favorite Death Cab album closer, a long exhale after absorbing the emotional deathblows of “What Sarah Said” and “Brothers On A Hotel Bed.” But if the song’s lyrical theme is to be taken at its word, there’s no substitute for the original incarnation which appeared three years earlier as the title track of the Stability EP For nearly nine extra minutes, Death Cab and producer John Vanderslice layer, loop, and distort a simple acoustic lament, bearing out Gibbard’s closing pledge of “I won’t mind.” Take that part away and the message of “Stable Song” is resignation rather than the vow of resilience Gibbard makes on “Stability” — to shoulder the burden of memory and regret rather than suppress it, and giving a glimpse of what it might actually feel like to do that very thing for the rest of one’s life.
23. “The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive” (Kintsugi, 2015)
Death Cab underwent a series of graceful leaps and sensible pivots over their first two decades – and then 2015’s Kintsugi, a fault line appeared that only grows more chasmic with time. Though Chris Walla contributed guitar and electronic collage prior to leaving the band, his role was already minimized by the induction of Rich Costey, an aptly-named producer whose CV (Muse, major-label Interpol) represented a more realistic assessment of who Death Cab’s peers were at the time. Given his credits in the time since, it’s easy to absolve Walla especially since Gibbard’s claim that Death Cab had grown “stagnant and self-referential” only proved more true on Thank You For Today. Oddly enough, the best song on Kintsugi finds both men at their most meta. “The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive” handles like a luxury sedan doing 80 on the PCH, unusually sleek and aerodynamic for Death Cab but pleasingly similar to Now, Now’s classic Tumblr-rock single “Threads,” released on Walla’s Trans label in 2012. “I’m not going to change the way I’ve always written for fear of people correctly or incorrectly assigning a name and face to these songs,” Gibbard told Billboard prior to Kintsugi, assuming that critics would project his divorce from Zooey Deschanel onto every lyric the way they did with their marriage on Codes And Keys – and “The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive” says it without really saying it, reflecting on the seductiveness of a Hollywood romance and its inevitable, mutually assured destruction. “I don’t know why I return to the scenes of these crimes,” Gibbard asks but it’s rhetorical — that’s where the pain and beauty still reside for Death Cab.
22. “We Laugh Indoors” (The Photo Album, 2001)
Death Cab For Cutie never really had to face any kind of backlash once they signed to Atlantic — maybe it was the amicable parting with Barsuk, most likely that they never had any kind of punk or hipster cred to begin with. And yet, they’ve made it a point on pretty much every single album to talk about the influence of Brian Eno and Can, shorthand for “we wish to be taken seriously.” The impact of those acts have manifested in either awkward or, for the most part, imperceptible ways with the exception of “We Laugh Indoors” — a song that preceded any of their angling for critical favor. Though Chris Walla’s muted and muffled production was integral to the artistic success of We Have The Facts, in less than a year, he was able to evoke the streamlined and sleek qualities of Swedish minimalism or German engineering rather than a rumpled bed or stuffy apartment. The spacious sound design of “We Laugh Indoors” provides dimension to one of The Photo Album’s most lyrically abstract numbers, creating a bright and breathable safe space in the studio amidst the panhandlers and construction noise of Seattle — at least until the distorted rupture of the bridge, which hints at the even greater ambitions Walla would realize behind the boards on Transatlanticism.
21. “Doors Unlocked And Open” (Codes And Keys, 2011)
In Chuck Klosterman’s prophetic reappraisal of Billy Joel, he identifies “Just The Way You Are” as the Piano Man’s “single greatest achievement.” It has nothing to do with the mechanics of the melody or the arrangement or the depth of lyrics, just the fact that Joel eventually divorced the woman about whom we wrote it. “It’s the clearest example of why Joel’s love songs resonate with so many people,” Klosterman states. “He expresses absolute conviction in moments of wholly misguided affection.” Later on in their interview, Joel tells Klosterman that he originally got married because it seemed like the right thing to do and attempted suicide by drinking furniture polish because he was ashamed of how he “couldn’t bring anything to the relationship.” This is the kind of critical mindset I try to take into 2011’s Codes And Keys nowadays — many, including Ben Gibbard, consider it Death Cab’s weakest album and it’s almost entirely about being in love with Zooey Deschanel. If their eventual divorce doesn’t really provide extra, retroactive dimension to its more cloying impulses, it does reinforce how the giddiness of new love can override the defense mechanisms that keep such cloying impulses at bay. Perhaps that’s why “Doors Unlocked And Opened” remains the resonant centerpiece of Codes And Keys and not, say, the ultra-twee “Portable Television” or “Underneath The Sycamore”; within Death Cab’s most (and maybe only) successful foray into Kraut-rock, Gibbard longs not for the white-hot spark of infatuation but the oxygen of genuine communication that keeps the flame going.
20. “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” (Plans, 2005)
Death Cab is by no means a one-hit-wonder, but something that’s a bit harder to define — similar to, say, Modest Mouse or Bright Eyes or M83 or Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Future Islands, they have one song that is exceedingly more popular than anything else they’ve ever done and also somewhat atypical. The irony of “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” is that it plays to the exact stereotype held by people who don’t like them at all – you know, one guy with a guitar being very, very sad. And truth be told, that does describe “I Will Follow You Into The Dark,” an extremely sad-sounding song and their only one played by just a guy on acoustic guitar; only six months after “First Day Of My Life,” “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” kept the dorm-room strummers fed. So why does this one have over 200 million Spotify plays and the indignity of earning a Grammy nomination, only to lose to “My Humps”? The Rolling Stone review of Plans singled out “I Will Follow You Into The Dark,” in that it “demonstrates how wise Gibbard is to let the band mess with his pristine melodies, which would sound wispy and ignorable on their own.” The exact opposite is true — Gibbard’s performance is indeed fragile, recorded on a lark in mono, with the mics close enough to hear his breathing. But bereft of Plans’ glassy sheen and occasional progged-out arrangements, the melody and message “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” hits more directly and indelibly than anything else in Death Cab’s catalog, exposing the heavy heart of their most deeply felt album — love isn’t actually watching someone die, but facing the unknown together.
19. “Title Track” (We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes, 2000)
If you’re the type that likes to geek out over track sequencing, tracing the topography of an artist’s output, figuring out how their albums interact with each other and… you know, ranking their best songs in a list… there are few moments more gratifying than when a band uses their sophomore album opener to announce their leap from “promising” to “arrived.” When Jonny Greenwood hits about three tremolo pedals before the verse of “Planet Telex,” the full-band drop on “An Introduction To The Album,” the sub-bass judders of “Silent Shout,” and so forth. Death Cab For Cutie do this on “Title Track,” but in a way befitting a band that avoids grand gestures. The first half is curiously muted, like it’s being heard from a slightly corrupted mp3 stolen off Scour or through a thin apartment wall, perhaps to recreate the shabby apartments that post-grads endure when they first leave their cozy college towns for the big city. As with Something About Airplanes, Gibbard’s words are evocative but frustratingly private, an inside conversation about an inside conversation (“talking how the group had began to splinter”). And then the filter lifts, and Death Cab have gone hi-fi, all frequencies alit and filling the stereo field, the same melody and guitar figures and plodding drum pattern becoming intensified, even if Death Cab barely raises more than a simmer. Most importantly, Gibbard ditches the obtuse language of Airplanes for the kind of direct, sensual imagery that would soon solidify his status as one of indie rock’s most distinctive lyricists — “I can taste your lipstick on the filter,” “memory could not recall/a wave of alcohol,” “shaved the hours off,” “lushing with the hallway congregation.” It all sets the dizzying stakes of a relationship moving too fast and an album that would spend the rest of its runtime dealing with the fallout.
18. “President Of What?” (Something About Airplanes, 1998)
The question mark in “President Of What?” is doing a lot of work, turning its titular statement into an act of both aggression and exploration. Gibbard and Walla play Johnny Marr chords in the style of Doug Martsch, and overdub reedy synth lines, distorted guitar harmonics, and dated audio clips that would never again appear on future releases. But it’s all held together by Gibbard’s most challenging and rewarding melody to that point. If the lyrics on Something About Airplanes seem overly obtuse compared to their early 2000s output, Gibbard’s admitted that Something About Airplanes reflects a time when he used cleverness to compensate for a lack of self-confidence. “President Of What?” is an instance where he wasn’t outmaneuvering his instinct to impress the listener and himself.
17. “The New Year” (Transatlanticism, 2003)
My Indiecast cohost Steven Hyden is on the record as a Death Cab agnostic and I’d wager they lost him by violating his cardinal rule of sequencing: S1T1 has to be a banger. Meanwhile, Death Cab For Cutie have made eight albums that begin with a slow and steady plot exposition and only one that comes rushing out of the gate – and even “The New Year” takes a few seconds to fade in before letting off its sparkler bomb chords, acknowledging the stratospheric expectations borne of The Postal Service’s Give Up and meeting them with their most emphatic album. Though “The New Year” also begins with Gibbard’s most quoted line (“so this is the new year and I don’t feel any different”), his malaise ends right then and there. The arrangement of wandering lead guitar and skittering hi-hats sounds unmoored, almost anti-gravity, the feeling of casting off inhibitions to get dressed up and a little too drunk, to lose yourself amongst the crowd, to feel anything different. Notice by the final verse, he’s changed the line to “so this is the new year,” full stop — an earnest wish for change kicking off the album that would change everything for Death Cab.
16. “Marching Bands Of Manhattan” (Plans, 2005)
As you’ve heard a billion times by now, there’s a crack in everything and that’s how the light gets in. Ben Gibbard would also argue that this is how the sadness gets in as well, and hey, maybe it’s both. “Marching Bands Of Manhattan” allows for both possibilities, a tribute to the glass-half-full and glass-half-empty types — or people who empty a glass as fast as possible and fill it up just as quickly. He imagines displays of larger-than-life devotion that he’ll never be able to promise, let alone deliver. Chris Walla’s production is majestic and expansive and Gibbard’s scope is no larger than a pinhole during the coda where they build and build without ever reaching a crescendo. There’s no better way to open Plans, an objective triumph as their wildly successful major-label debut and also the saddest album they’ve ever made.
15. “Line Of Best Fit” (Something About Airplanes, 1998)
Death Cab For Cutie is an indie rock band that evolved from a lo-fi, solo singer-songwriter project in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1990s: of course there’s going to be some slowcore in its DNA. In fact, there’s a lot of it, see “Little Fury Bugs,” “No Joy In Mudville” and many, many songs on the introductory You Can Play These Songs With Chords compilation, including “Line Of Best Fit,” the only song on this list to inspire the creation of a long-running music publication. Even within this sonic subsection of Death Cab, “Line Of Best Fit” is anomalous — a duet with Abi Hall, an artist who I can’t find anywhere else on Discogs, and the last one Death Cab would do. The band sets aside the more regional influences that dominated Something About Airplanes to present themselves as one of the many bands working in the long shadow of Red House Painters at the time – Death Cab sound legitimately troubled here, all dour guitars and romantic turbulence, tacking on two minutes of droning feedback to the Chords version to justify its reappearance as Something About Airplanes‘ closer. Given everything that happened afterwards, this variant of Death Cab For Cutie is the most startling to revisit, one that was playing at a pace that mirrored Gibbard’s emotional state without any expectation of an audience.
14. “Transatlanticism” (Transatlanticism, 2003)
Ben Gibbard typically begins his songs with a casual observation that telescopes into a musing on a universal, cosmic truth. “Transtatlanticism” begins with Gibbard describing the Big Bang and how it led to one man’s simple longing. It invents a word for that simple longing. He repeats “I need you so much closer” so many times that the distance of, say, a couple of floors of your freshman dorm is equivalent to an entire ocean. They bring in a choir to sing “come on,” which… come on. Prior to 2003, Death Cab For Cutie had made songs over five minutes long, but never an intentional “epic.” They had also made great albums, but never an intentional “classic.” That would require risking an absurdity that had never factored into Death Cab’s unfailingly modest process to that point, and the title track of Transtatlanticism had no such hang-ups in becoming the “Hey Jude”/ “Tender”-type epic they needed to confirm their first true classic.
13. “The Employment Pages” (We Have tThe Facts And We’re Voting Yes, 2000)
If not exactly proving “tragedy plus time equals comedy,” there comes a point where even the most embarrassingly resonant Death Cab songs about romantic dysfunction can be enjoyed from an emotional remove. They’re no longer a source of consolation, but nostalgia for a time when every misunderstanding and misread social cue could inspire reams of dialogue or full-on concept records. “The Employment Pages” is an exception, at least to anyone who spent the early 2000s as a “discouraged worker.” As much as We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes fixates on a disintegrating relationship set amongst a tight-knit social circle, it’s also about the chasmic difference between turning, say, 21 and 23. Gibbard specifically explained the “The Employment Pages” as being “about the transition of going from idyllic, easy, college-town living, to trying to become an adult for some reason, but you’re not quite sure why.” Their story checks out: during their Barsuk years, Gibbard worked in an oil refinery and Walla lived with his parents. “The Employment Pages” doesn’t spend too much time detailing the process of job-searching in pre-LinkedIn times, instead capturing the demoralization of having your career options limited to a couple of square inches per day. “Nothing was found worthwhile,” Gibbard moans, spending another day lazing about the house, hearing your neighbors through the paper-thin walls and wondering when your life is going to really begin.
12. “Bixby Canyon Bridge” (Narrow Stairs, 2008)
The central irony of Ben Gibbard’s rise to becoming the avatar of Sad, Literate, Bespectacled Indie Guys in the 2000s is that it happened as his writing became increasingly broad and depersonalized — Death Cab was allowed to be sad without ever exploring the darkness that was consuming Ben Gibbard, the actual human being. At least that was the case until “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” a transmission from Gibbard’s emotional bottom, a futile attempt to commune with the ghost of Jack Kerouac by recreating his retreat in Big Sur. Gibbard starts his road trip with a typically chipper melody, only to fast forward towards its end minutes later — “I cursed myself for being surprised / that this didn’t play like it did in my mind.” The second half of “Bixby Canyon Bridge” seethes and roils like no other Death Cab song, evoking the sleepless nights and waking convulsions of a drunk’s first days of drying out, only to find Gibbard slumping back to his car, “no closer to any kind of truth” — establishing a theme of disillusionment that would carry on through Death Cab For Cutie’s first #1 album,
11. “Company Calls”
10. “Company Calls Epilogue” (We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes, 2000)
“I type too slow to make expressions stick” — that’s rich coming from a guy who invented an entire subgenre of emo electronica through a series of email exchanges. Then again, no one would accuse the narrator on “Company Calls” of having an accurate sense of self. The closest anything on We Have The Facts gets to an actual rock song casts Gibbard as a firebrand, the only person willing to not hold their peace — comparing marriage to a totalitarian, Eastern bloc regime, vowing to melt a wedding cake’s figurines and drink them in as some kind of modern-day sin eater. It’s an exhilarating outpouring of pent-up bitterness at an event where decorum is expected, if not strongarmed through draconian social norms. Which is why it’s so important that “Epilogue” follows — it recasts its predecessor as a fantasy, or at least an imagined vulnerability hangover. Or maybe just a plain old hangover. “You were the one, but I can’t spit it out / when the date’s been set,” Gibbard moans over the steady and somber beat, having showed up for the wedding for little more than the free drinks amongst friends and family oblivious to his fantasies of ruining the entire thing — but also his self-pity that keeps him in comfortable misery rather than risk conflict.
9. “We Looked Like Giants” (Transatlanticism, 2003)
Death Cab For Cutie write a lot about sex without being even remotely sexy — at least “sexy” as it’s typically understood in pop music, some balance of sultry swagger and animal magnetism. But that’s all seduction, the promise of an idealized experience, not what “We Looked Like Giants” describes — two teenagers “in the back of [a] grey subcompact, fumbling to make contact.” This is why it doesn’t sound like any of the four members of Death Cab For Cutie are playing in the same room, each instrument darting out in different directions, only locking into the same tempo on the bridge’s untamed, hormonal surge. The second half fades out in a post-coital trance, with Gibbard hewing more towards the dewy-eyed reflections on memory and distance that define the majority of Transatlanticism. But as he repeats the climactic line (“and I held you closer than anyone could ever get”), “We Looked Like Giants” puts the lens back on the cringe always lurking at the edges of our nostalgia.
8. “Soul Meets Body” (Plans, 2005)
The unofficial subgenre of “supermarket alt-rock” encompasses a subsection of songs that would get booted off every Ralph’s playlist if anyone actually paid attention to the lyrics — how many people have heard the chipper melodies of “Slide” or “Jumper” or “Found Out About You” while mindlessly filling their shopping cart, oblivious to their plainly spoken struggles with heartbreak, betrayal, suicide, and abortion? So it’s no slight to point out that “Soul Meets Body” is the only Death Cab song I hear in these situations — this actually burnishes its artistic merit. Gibbard sings of the pervasive psychosomatic dissonance and vague existential dread that people usually keep at bay with retail therapy and then he realizes on the chorus that he’d rather die than face any of this stuff alone. Yet Gibbard’s emotional powerlifting sounds sweatless as “Soul Meets Body” breezes by with its locomotive rhythm and brisk production giving off an early fall chill that might evoke the vague sense that you should stock up on sweaters or hard cider. At least until he hits that high note on the bridge that brings everything to a jarring pause for those still paying attention — a chance to question the meaning of life and death itself while rummaging through Chobani Flips.
7. “For What Reason” (We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes, 2000)
In recent years, “emo adjacent” has become a useful shorthand to describe artists who embody some of the genre’s distinguishing characteristics without being in it — emo becomes an adjective rather than a genre, maintaining access to festivals and labels that otherwise wouldn’t touch the stuff. Death Cab deftly toed the line throughout the 2000s — lacking the basis in punk and hardcore to ride the rising tide of emo’s second wave but when things went in a slicker, meaner direction several years later, Death Cab were actually seen as an alternative to the likes of Taking Back Sunday or Brand New — despite the fact that they could be just as vindictive as any Long Island mook yelling over slick power chords. “This won’t be the last you hear from me,” Gibbard warns at the top of “For What Reason,” but in a bookish voice of someone conditioned to believe they’re not as bad as the jocks and frat boys. Or at least, someone we’re conditioned to believe isn’t as bad as the jocks and frat boys. But if that were the case, he would’ve never picked up a pen in the first place to write, “in the end, I win every time / as ink remains.” The winners don’t write history so much as the writers get to win history.
6. “Title And Registration” (Transatlanticism, 2003)
Everyone knows the glove compartment is accurately named but that’s besides the point. If Ben Gibbard were born, say, ten years later, the opening line on “Title And Registration” might’ve popped up as a tweet given hundreds of likes and forgotten minutes later. But in 2003, there was no such release valve for his nonsensical proposal for a name change and no escape from the disappointment and regret of a love he allowed to slowly fade until nothing remained. This song could’ve started in Home Depot’s hardware aisle or the frozen food section at Albertson’s and ended up the same exact way — Death Cab’s answer to “I Know That It’s Over” or Elliott Smith’s “Everything Reminds Me Of Her,” a commiserative pop song and tribute to the futility of cleverness in fighting off loneliness.
5. “Cath…” (Narrow Stairs, 2008)
The group of fans that Death Cab alienated by signing to a major label is majorly dwarfed by the ones they gained, but they do exist — otherwise, I don’t think Ben Gibbard would promise that he’s using a new $1000 signature Fender guitar to write songs reminiscent of We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes. “Cath…” is probably the closest thing we can get to a template — revisiting one of Gibbard’s favorite topics from his Barsuk days (the falsehoods of monogamy, especially within marriage), the narrator finds himself no less cynical but more practical. “I’d have done the same as you,” he admits to a bride who’s willing to let “good enough” be the enemy of “great.” But let’s be real here, if “Cath…” is the major-label Death Cab song that fans of all stripes can agree open, it’s the riff, as dense and florid as the imagined Pacific Northwest — the kind that would make Doug Martsch green with envy and had Chris Walla gushing when he heard it recreated on Special Explosion’s “Bed.”
4. “405” (We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes, 2000)
I’ve found that wedding invitations tend to arrive in bursts rather than a steady stream — and the first comes shortly after college graduation, from school sweethearts who’ve decided that their love, fostered in bars and road trips and house parties can withstand the obligations of adult domesticity. “405” is Gibbard’s most rich and visceral retelling of this awkward, liminal state of romance — between people who are technically on their own but will flock back to their parents’ house during breaks to do laundry and hide their cigarettes underneath the patio, who can experience an “alcoholic summer” because summer is somehow distinct from the rest of their year. It can’t be coincidental that “405” is produced to recreate the sensation of lightly buzzed driving on a vast interstate, as Walla decks out the steady central riff with trance-like beeping and radio static — reinforcing the inconveniences and red flags that people are willing to ignore in a state when they make post-coital confessions like “it’s never been better than this” and really mean it.
3. Tiny Vessels (Transatlanticism, 2003)
As more and more abusers in the entertainment industry have been exposed for their transgressions over the past several years, an age-old question of fans and critics has been intensified — what to do with great art made by problematic artists. The same considerations have given rise to a less urgent but perhaps even more vexing examination of what to do with problematic fictional characters created and enjoyed by the supposed “good guys.” Witness Tina Fey needing to “atone for” 30 Rock, specifically Liz Lemon, a searing satire of superficial, show-biz liberalism whose quirks and arrested development was seen as relatable or even aspirational — at least at a time when her overt tendencies towards racist and classist bullying didn’t warrant as much scrutiny. Or, YA author Elin Hildebrand removing a joke about Anne Frank — made by a teenager who is reading The Diary Of Anne Frank — from a published novel, at the behest of social media. The impulse is understandable, if based on the extraordinary presumption of a trickle-up effect where fewer people might act like assholes if they don’t get as many ideas from books and music and movies. It also presumes an inability of the audience to both find an asshole compelling and not at all worth emulating.
It’s a discussion that inevitably envelops emo, a genre that promises an unmatched intensity of connection between artist and listener at significant risk. At worst, artists can wickedly abuse that connection; a lesser concern is that listeners have a tendency to bypass any construction of authorial distance and assume from “Tiny Vessels” that Ben Gibbard was out in Silver Lake treating women like absolute shit. And so “Tiny Vessels” has the potential to go the way of, say, Paramore’s “Misery Business” or Say Anything’s “Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too” or the majority of Pinkerton: emo standards about otherwise normal people becoming manipulative sociopaths for the sole purpose of getting what they want out of relationships, retired from live performances despite their popularity because its author can’t relate to the narrator anymore. Every time I’ve seen Death Cab live, they play “Tiny Vessels” and the crowd gets very into it — maybe for the same reasons people play Grand Theft Auto, as a safe space to engage in their basest character defects without consequences, before going about the business of being a decent person in real life.
Then again, there are many reasons “Tiny Vessels” is this high on a Death Cab Best Songs List and the thematically similar asshole anthem “Someday You Will Be Loved” was barely in consideration. For one thing, this is Walla’s magnum opus from a production standpoint; everything about the arrangement is objectively gorgeous and glazed, befitting a narrator who can recognize beauty and feel completely unmoved by it. The sound and sentiment are disturbingly hollow until the bridge and its deeply disturbing insight into the only things that can make this guy can truly feel alive: there’s an unsettling violence in Gibbard’s lyrics and his vocal performance, images of teeth drawing blood and bruises, as Walla applies layer after layer of distortion until drawing it back for the mesmerizing final verse — only broken up by Gibbard raising his voice ever so slightly to stress how little he wants to talk about the stupid little feelings that might ruin his vile, cheap thrills. You could argue that the popularity of “Tiny Vessels” is a prime example of an audience completely misunderstanding the point of a pretty overt song, but I’d say it only reaffirms its brilliance: notice the first line is directed at you, that you’re no different than the narrator, putting Death Cab’s supposedly sensitive and enlightened fanbase on notice with of the most fully realized depictions of a terrible, terrible person ever produced by indie rock.
2. Photobooth (The Forbidden Love EP, 2000)
For my money, the definitive Death Cab For Cutie moment does not actually occur in a Death Cab For Cutie song. Rather, it comes courtesy of their de facto brand ambassador, The O.C.’s Seth Cohen, experiencing the interminable insult of his Summer Roberts working a charity kissing booth while refusing to publicly recognize their relationship. Six months before Garden State set the bar even higher for a certain kind of emo dork wish fulfillment, Cohen gets on top of the kissing booth and pledges, “acknowledge me now or lose me forever.” It’s somehow not the most memorable line from this exchange — “I’m a big dork and I listen to emo. And I’m dating her” is.
I imagine this is the happy ending many people imagine for themselves while listening to Death Cab For Cutie’s music, frequently from the perspective of an emo dork who can’t bring themselves to express what they’re actually thinking. But “The Telenovela” is the definitive Death Cab moment for me because it’s basically a televised happy ending for “Photobooth,” itself a definitive Death Cab song. Guy and girl carry on the presumably exciting parts of a relationship in private – sharing cigarettes and long nights on the lawn, skinny dipping and sleeping together, consecrating their bond in the titular space. But as with Seth and Summer, it’s defined by an asymmetry of intention endemic in young couples who have a lot to say and frighteningly underdeveloped communication skills — one person thinks it’s love, another person doesn’t think much of it at all, and it’s worse than if nothing happened to begin with. The main difference here is that the reasons for this painfully ambiguous state are unclear – is this the secret affair alluded to on the preceding We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes and kept under wraps to keep a more proper relationship alive? Is the woman here playing the lead role from “Tiny Vessels” and just in it for the sex? Or is she like Summer, someone who is entangled with an emo dork and trying to save her reputation? Or maybe the question lies in why the guy puts up with it, no matter how many times he says “it’s time to move on.” The drum machine that slowly ticks away at the end is the same sound you hear at the intro — he’ll be back again and, if only in memory, maybe you’ll go with him too.
1. A Movie Script Ending (The Photo Album, 2001)
Death Cab For Cutie aren’t a music video band, nor do they really need to be — their association with The O.C. or just about any other formative document of early 2000s indie pop culture doesn’t leave much to the imagination as to what they’re about and Gibbard’s lyrics are often so expositive that a video treatment might be redundant or even distracting. But dear lord, does “A Movie Script Ending” absolutely crush it — the simplest video they’ve ever made and the only one that actually enhanced its underlying narrative. I hadn’t really been familiar with Death Cab until I saw the clip during a sleepless night on MTV2 while I was at home during a college break; its rumbling tom pattern and interlocking, clean guitars weren’t all that far off from bands like Jimmy Eat World and The Shins and Modest Mouse, who I already loved. The reverb on Gibbard’s vocals softens even its most striking lines — “with your hands on my shoulders / a meaningless gesture / a movie script ending,” “and the shop fronts on Holly are dirty words / asterisks in for the vowels.”
But they initially serve as background to the monumentally sad visual — a young woman on an airport escalator in tears and, then, a flashback to her and her partner spending their last day together before he finally boards his flight. They’re slow to get out of bed, they take a bunch of cute pictures in a photobooth, they have a terrible fight in a parking deck and then they slowly, so painfully and slowly, separate for the last time until the next time — a scenario taken to its logical extreme two years later with Transatlanticism. I’m fairly certain I was in tears by the end and I was also fairly certain that I wanted nothing more in my life than to experience something as profound as these two photogenic 20-somethings were going through. I don’t know if it was an ad for The Photo Album or for a kind of lifestyle where every single meaningless gesture has the potential to make cinematic history.
Death Cab For Cutie is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.