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It’s unclear whether Death Cab For Cutie’s modest origins were hiding the band’s big ambitions, or whether those ambitions were only realized when they started to find some well-earned success. But at the beginning, they were college-rock guys from a college town: Bellingham, Washington, is about 90 miles north of Seattle, closer to its northern neighbor, Vancouver, than Grunge City, USA. Singer-guitarist Ben Gibbard was studying environmental chemistry at Bellingham’s Western Washington University when he started playing and recording his own music, first with a band called Pinwheel and eventually as Death Cab For Cutie — the name is taken from a song by British weirdos the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, who performed it in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour film.
Gibbard wasn’t alone for long, bulking out the band with guitarist Chris Walla and bassist Nick Harmer; the trio formed the core of the band for the biggest part of its history. From there, hard work via lots of touring and excellent word of mouth — the internet was still kind of a baby — quietly and assuredly lifted Death Cab For Cutie into indie-rock’s highest (read: still fairly modest) echelons. It started with 1998’s Something About Airplanes, a gauzy, gorgeous debut that brought Gibbard’s pessimistic, thoughtful lyrics to the world — but hardly screamed for attention. As the band’s popularity and songwriting chops grew, so did its confidence and cultural cachet. A flirtation with the mainstream via frequent mentions on the FOX teen drama The O.C. portended even more success, and the run of albums between 2000’s We Have The Facts and We’re Voting Yes and 2008’s Narrow Stairs were increasingly successful and uniformly excellent. (It didn’t hurt that Ben Gibbard’s side project, The Postal Service, found a pretty massive hit with 2003’s Give Up, either.)
It was a remarkably slow and steady ascent that has bloomed into a 20-years-and-counting career for Death Cab, who will release their ninth album, Thank You For Today, later this week. With eight studio albums and various EPs already available, there’s no real wrong way to begin with any of these five.
Having found some local success with their debut, Death Cab For Cutie cleaned up the production a bit for album number two — losing some of the watery weirdness of Something About Airplanes and leaving more space for Ben Gibbard’s poetic leanings. It was clear from the start that he was a songwriter for whom words were far more than an afterthought, and in this era he was partial to impressionistic, intriguing lines like “I’d keep a distance ’cause the complications cloud it all, and mail a postcard sending greetings from the Eastern Bloc.” For fans of Death Cab’s indie-est era, this is the pinnacle. Those fans also can’t (and shouldn’t!) live without The Forbidden Love EP, from the same year, which includes one of the band’s best-ever songs, a wistful paean to breaking up called “Photo Booth.” Though it never appeared on an album, it’s a fan favorite and the band still plays it to this day.
Though the band doesn’t look back too fondly on The Photo Album — they feel like it was rushed and could have been better — it does feature some of its best songs and rawest performances. They peeled back some of the gauze both lyrically and musically, opting for more muscular guitar sounds and wordy punches on songs like “Why You’d Want To Live Here” and “Blacking Out The Friction.” What Gibbard later said he didn’t like was how straightforward The Photo Album is, but that’s a good chunk of its charm: It’s Death Cab at their most direct, before they could afford the lush sonics that would come later. Under pressure to perform, they did. The album’s three singles remain some of the band’s finest compositions: “A Movie Script Ending,” “I Was a Kaleidoscope” and “We Laugh Indoors.”
It was the epic Transatlanticism that made it clear Death Cab was headed for even bigger things. Whatever external pressures made them rush through The Photo Album were ditched for album number four, and the band finally had a drummer — Jason McGerr — that they were happy with. (He’s been with them ever since.) Patient and lush yet lyrically urgent, Transatlanticism quickly became an indie-rock yardstick. It starts with the crash of the gorgeously big “The New Year” and winds its way through a not-quite-concept set of songs about long-distance love. (“I need you so much closer” goes the title track’s big singalong.) It sold a remarkable half-million copies on Barsuk Records, the band’s longtime home base, and they would head to a larger home for the next phase of their career.
If Transatlanticism sounded like a band with something to prove, Plans sounds like a follow-up victory lap. (Drummer Jason McGerr likened the two albums to an inhale followed by an exhale.) With what was presumably all the money in the world available to them — Death Cab had their pick of major labels and went with Atlantic — the band smoothed out their edges just enough to score some hits, but without sacrificing their sound one bit. (Guitarist Chris Walla continued to serve as producer, even.) “Soul Meets Body” and the gentle death ballad “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” got the radio play, but it’s deeper cuts like album-opener “Marching Bands of Manhattan” and the ultra-sad “What Sarah Said” that mark it as one of the band’s best. It’s undoubtedly the most popular — it’s Death Cab’s only platinum-certified record.
What to do after doing everything you’ve always wanted? Narrow Stairs went, in a sense, back to basics. The success of Plans meant that Death Cab For Cutie was on the road forever, and being that battle-tested (and perhaps road-weary) meant that Narrow Stairs felt a little more raw, in the best ways. It also got weird, because why not? First single “I Will Possess Your Heart” is built on the kind of motorik groove that Death Cab had never attempted before, and it rolls along for eight and a half minutes. Lyrically, Gibbard was at his darkest, and that’s paradoxically where he shines brightest. “Cath” tells the depressing tale of a bride who’s just settled for a bleak and boring future, while “You Can Do Better Than Me” and “The Ice is Getting Thinner” are pretty self-explanatory with their titles. It was the last Death Cab album on which Gibbard’s darkest tendencies would rule the day: They’re by no means absent on 2011’s Codes and Keys or 2015’s Kintsugi, but they’re not front and center, either.
Josh Modell is the executive editor of Talkhouse, the former editor-in-chief of The A.V. Club, and the former editorial director of Onion Inc. He has met both Lil Bub and Phil Collins (but not on the same day).
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