Sunday, August 28, 2005

The best part is that it's well-deserved:

Nothing Is Certain but Death and Taxis - New York Times

Nothing Is Certain but Death and Taxis

Published: August 28, 2005

BEN GIBBARD, the lead singer and main songwriter for Death Cab for Cutie, has had a wildly eventful few years. His band's sweet, melancholy songs have helped a generation of listeners rediscover the joys of heartfelt balladry. And along the way, Mr. Gibbard has gone from semi-obscure singer to unlikely heartthrob. Who could have predicted that someone like him would wind up dominating the gossip columns? And who could have foreseen the sold-out stadium concerts, the punch-up with a paparazzo, the fruitful marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow?

O.K., strike that last bit: I think I'm getting Mr. Gibbard mixed up with that guy from Coldplay. But it's a surprisingly easy mistake to make. Both of them know their way around grand, sighing love songs. And while Mr. Gibbard isn't quite a mainstream rock star yet, he's surprisingly close. The last Death Cab for Cutie album, "Transatlanticism" (Barsuk), has sold more than 300,000 copies since its release in 2003. And with an electronic side project called the Postal Service, Mr. Gibbard released another 2003 album, "Give Up" (Sub Pop); it was a surprise indie smash, selling more than 600,000 copies.

On Tuesday, Death Cab for Cutie is to release "Plans" (Atlantic), its first major-label album, which is all but assured to be its best-selling one so far. In an earlier era, indie-rock fans might have worried about the new record deal and the newfound popularity, but Death Cab's evolution into a pop-chart-ready band has been steady and relatively uncontroversial. Whereas older indie-rock groups sometimes struggled furiously against the current of listener demand, this one has found a graceful way to swim with it.

"Plans" also represents a challenge for the mainstream music industry. Modest Mouse proved that indie-rock bands (you don't necessarily outgrow the genre when you outgrow your record label) could earn a platinum plaque, and Bright Eyes proved that an indie-rock act could make its debut in the Top 10. Now the executives at Atlantic Records have a chance to raise the bar again, although no one knows how high. Could Death Cab be the first of these bands to break into the Top 5? The first to go double-platinum? The first to score a remix from Kanye West? (A Gibbard can dream, can't he?)

Ever since Death Cab's 1999 debut album, "Something About Airplanes," this Bellingham, Wash., band has been finding ways to record music that is pretty but not fussy. The members first perfected their approach on "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" (Barsuk), an astonishing CD full of hard songs that sounded soft. Mr. Gibbard sang,
When your apologies fail to ring true
So slick with that sarcastic slew
Of phrases like, 'I thought you knew'
While keeping me in hot pursuit

but the words came out not as angry accusations but as one long, gentle sigh.

After "The Photo Album" (Barsuk), from 2001, the band outdid itself with "Transatlanticism," which showed off Mr. Gibbard's crystalline voice and also the crystalline production of the guitarist, Chris Walla. He stripped away almost all the noise and fuzz, letting listeners concentrate on intoxicating little details, like the owlish hoots hidden in the background of a song called "Lightness."

With "Translatlanticism," Mr. Gibbard also found a simpler and more suspenseful way to write songs. Sometimes he began with a scientific observation ("And when I see you, I really see you upside down/ But my brain knows better, it picks you up and turns you around") and worked his way toward an unadorned confession ("I know it's too late/ And I should have given you a reason to stay"). Songs from the album found their way to soundtracks, including that the of TV show "The OC." The sugary songs of the Postal Service became sleeper hits, too, and Mr. Gibbard found himself the figurehead of an unexpected indie-rock boom.

Whatever the cause, it wasn't Mr. Gibbard's rock-star swagger. If anything, his success seems like a byproduct of his humility. A prouder band might find defiant ways to alienate newcomers, and to keep longtime fans at arm's length. But Death Cab excels at giving listeners what they want: wistful, neatly written indie-rock ballads. Instead of insisting that we humor them (like noisier, pricklier indie bands of a decade ago), Death Cab has agreed to humor us, instead; like the Shins and Rilo Kiley, Death Cab has figured out that there's nothing wrong with being eager to please.

Now comes "Plans," which is fuller than "Transatlanticism" but otherwise quite similar. There are delicious (and, still, melancholy) songs that unfold like the last batch. "What Sarah Said" begins with some rolling keyboard chords (come to think of it, they don't sound wholly unlike something Ms. Paltrow's husband might play), and some opening remarks: "And it came to me then that every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time." (It's the closest Mr. Gibbard comes to singing the title.) By song's end, the lyrics have grown shiveringly direct: "I'm thinking of what Sarah said/ That love is watching someone die/ So who's gonna watch you die?" These are cruel words, but Mr. Gibbard sings them as if he really wants to know.

This album feels a bit more premeditated, a bit more familiar, than "Transatlanticism." (In fact, the new album ends with a throwback: "Stable Song" is a rearrangement of "Stability," which was released on an EP in 2002..) But it's a triumph all the same, with semisweet refrains that glide into your brain and refuse to leave; millions of Coldplay fans should give this CD a chance. In "I Will Follow You Into the Dark," which seems destined to become one of the album's most beloved songs, there is only an acoustic guitar to accompany Mr. Gibbard's memorable promise of endless love: "If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks/ Then I'll follow you into the dark." On this album, couples don't just part, they dearly depart.

Mr. Gibbard's lyrics have changed subtly over the years. The early albums were full of odes sung by lovers left behind. In one old song, "Company Calls Epilogue," Mr. Gibbard evoked an ex's wedding: "You were the one/ But I can't spit it out when the date's been set." Now he's as likely to be the leaver as the left. "Someday You Will Be Loved" offers cold comfort to an ex: "The memories of me will seem more like bad dreams/ Just a series of blurs like I never occurred."

On the album's first single, "Soul Meets Body," Mr. Gibbard delivers a soothing pick-up line. "You're the only song I want to hear," he sings, "A melody softly soaring through my atmosphere."

That phrase sums up what Death Cab for Cutie promises its listeners. Most bands, of course, promise far more. But it's worth remembering, too, that almost all of them wind up delivering far less.

No comments: