Album Review: Death Cab For Cutie, “Plans” (2005)

I’ll admit that I’m pretty aversive to listening to any band that is associated with the word “emo”.  First of all, I don’t understand how “emotional” can become a genre of music…isn’t all music emotional in some sense?  And even worse, I don’t understand how a group of people can be labeled (and choose to label themselves) as emotional…aren’t we all emotional?  We’re humans.  Emotions come along with that.  It’s a stupid trend that I’ll have a hard time explaining to my grand children one day.

Anyway, Death Cab For Cutie has always been described to me as an Emo band.  And of course, their most popular song, I Will Follow You Into The Dark, with its tear-inducing lyrics and weepy guitar, is pretty much the anthem for emo kids.  So I’ve been pretty Death Cab-resistant for the past few years, simply because I refuse to get caught up in the emo hype and be one of those people.

One of my friends passed along their album to me during a music swap a year or two ago.  I didn’t even notice the album was on my hard drive until I was cleaning out some of my music last fall and stumbled across it.  Now that the emo trend is seeing its downfall, I’ve noticed people recategorizing Death Cab’s sound as indie-rock (and yes, I’m still not sure how “independent” is a genre, either, but it makes more sense than emotional), which I certainly don’t have a problem with.  Perhaps people were just mislabeling good music based on one song loved by 14 year old girls who shop at Hot Topic?  I decided to be the judge myself.

Strangely enough, Death Cab’s fifth studio album Plans (released in 2005), is a great collection of songs.  Lead singer, Ben Gibbard has a nice enough voice, and the band’s light, acoustic rock/indie sound is excellent, but the thing that shocked me the most is the depth of the songs and the stellar songwriting.

The album starts off on an upbeat note with Marching Band of Manhattan, an incredibly sweet song about trying to help a friend through a hard time.  The cheerful drumming and guitar that goes on throughout the song is uplifting and Gibbard’s earnest delivery of the lyrics always make me smile.  My favorite lines come during the bridge (“Sorrow drips into your heart through a pinhole/Just like a faucet that leaks and there is comfort in the sound/But while you debate half empty or half full/It slowly rises, your love is going to drown”), and it’s already apparent from this opening song that all my preconceived notions about Death Cab were wrong.

Soul Meets Body is a down-tempo track, which opens with the lines, “I want to live where soul meets body, and let the sun wrap its arms around me.  And bathe my skin in water cool and cleansing, and feel, feel what it’s like to be new”.  Again, I find the lyrics so descriptive, and well, lovely, that when I listen to the song, I want to be where Gibbard is, feeling the sun wrap its arms around me and feel “new”.  The song is actually a love song, about feeling complete with another person (“I do believe it’s true/That there are roads left in both of our shoes/But if the silence takes you/Then I hope it takes me too/So, brown eyes, I’ll hold you near/Because you’re the only song I want to hear/A melody softly soaring through my atmosphere”) and by the chorus, the beat kicks in and we are left listening to a cheery little number.

Summer Skin is a slower paced song with some drumming and bass guitar in it that I just love (thanks to drummer and bass guitarist Nick Harmer and Jason McGerr).   The song is basically about an ideal summer (“The water’s warm and children swim/And we frolicked about in our summer skin/I don’t recall a single care/Just greenery and humid air”) and an ideal summer love that ends when the summer does (“And I knew your heart I couldn’t win/Because the season’s change was a conduit/And we’d left our love in our summer skin”).  The song is very simple- consisting of only three short verses and no chorus, but the story is told succinctly and illustrated nicely.  I’m also quite a fan of Gibbard’s tenor voice in this song- he sounds pure and clear as he sings.

The excellence continues on with Different Names For The Same Place, a song basically about indifference.  This track starts off with just straight piano, which hasn’t been heard much on the album.  The change of pace is very nice, though drums are added in towards the end of the song and the sound becomes livelier as well.  The lyrics are some of my favorite (“Alone on a train, aimless in wander/An outdated map crumpled in my pocket/But I didn’t care where I was going/Because they’re all different names for the same place”), especially since I’ve felt this same exact way at several different points in  my life, and I’m sure anyone can relate to feeling like your life is stagnant for periods of time.

The aforementioned  I Will Follow You Into The Dark, appears next.  I honestly don’t have anything against this song, even though I mocked it at the beginning of the review.  As I said, the track is perhaps the band’s most popular- it got tons of plays on MTV when it was released, and has been used in several movies and TV shows.  It’s easy to see why- the song is stripped to some simple strumming (I’m just learning to play guitar, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to play this song soon- it’s only a few chords played repetitiously) and Gibbard’s vocals.  The ballad is a pretty one, and of course, the lyrics of eternal love are what make the song so loved by many (“Love of mine/Someday you will die/But I’ll be close behind/I’ll follow you into the dark”).  Even Gibbard’s falsetto during the bridge is incredibly pretty, and as a whole, the song is wonderful.  My only real complaint of the song is that’s it been far too overplayed, and it’s a shame that the band is mostly only known for this one song, when they have so many other great songs on this album alone.

Death Cab for Cutie at Manchester Academy, 4 July 2011
One such song is Your Heart Is An Empty Room.  I’ll admit that musically the song sounds pretty similar to a lot of the ones before it- it’s an upbeat track with electric guitar and the same drum loop that plays in the background of most of their songs.  However, the song is a treat again lyrically (“Home’s face, how it ages when you’re away/The spring blooms/Then you find the love that’s true/But you don’t know what now to do/Because the chase is all you know/And she stopped running months ago”).  One of the things I really love about Death Cab is their ability to take an often visited subject (loneliness, running from relationships), and give it a fresh spin with unique lyrics.  This song is certainly a testament to that.

I’m really excited because next up is my favorite song on the album, Someday You Will Be Loved.  Musically, this song is quite a departure from anything on the album so far- there’s just piano and guitar again, but the guitar is more rock-inspired and heavy, sounding more like something from Nirvana than from an “emo” band.  But of course, the lyrics are what drew me to this song and kept me hooked.  Gibbard sings the song from the point of view of a guy who has broken some poor girl’s heart.  He pretty much owns up to being the bad guy in the situation, and admitting that he had to end things.  But the part about this song that I love is the fact that he then goes on to promise, “someday you will be loved.”  The song goes on in this matter, as he promises that she deserves more and will have a better relationship in the future (“You may feel alone when you’re falling asleep/And every time tears roll down your cheeks/But I know your heart belongs to someone you’ve yet to meet/And someday you will be loved/You’ll be loved, you’ll be loved/Like you never have known/And the memories of me/Will seem more like bad dreams”).  Anyone who’s been on the girl’s side of this situation will find the song heartbreakingly sweet; after my last breakup, I remember listening to this song on repeat, constantly reminding myself of Gibbard’s sweet assurances.

The mood lightens with Crooked Teeth, one of the few other songs from this album that garnered mainstream success.   The tune is another peppy one, and I absolutely love the lyrics (“You’re so cute when you’re slurring your speech/But they’re closing the bar and they want us to leave”), in which Gibbard sings of a relationship that seems to be doomed from the start (“And you can’t find nothing at all /If there was nothing there all along…/ I’m a war of head versus heart/And it’s always this way/My head is weak, my heart always speaks/Before I know what it will say”).  Oh, haven’t we all had a relationship where these lyrics fit perfectly?

What Sarah Said is a pretty ballad (and AGAIN, here’s another song written for “Sarah”

I’m so sick of her…she gets all the attention!) that takes a while to truly appreciate.  At first listen, the song sounds like just another guitar/piano/drum based ballad, and musically, that’s about all it is.  But, yet again, the strength is in the lyrics.  The song is also about love, but this time covers it in a completely different aspect (“But I’m thinking of what Sarah said/That love is watching someone die/So who’s going to watch you die”)- true love, in a very real way.  Thinking about the meaning of this song and the lyrics, particularly the ones that I quoted, makes me choke up a little, I’ll admit it.  There’s something so incredibly moving about a love like that- being able to love someone and essentially let them go.  Of course, love and loss are a part of life, but Death Cab covers both so poignantly in this song (calling to mind Sufjan Steven’s Casimir Paliski Day) that it does make me teary eyed.  Ah, so I guess Death Cab’s musicis emotional.

Brothers on a Hotel Bed is also quite melancholy, this time describing the end of a relationship with some unique similes (“And I have learned/That even landlocked lovers yearn/For the sea like navy men/Because now we say goodnight/From our own separate sides/Like brothers on a hotel bed”).  When I first really took the time out to stop and listen to the lyrics on this album, I was in awe of Gibbard’s songwriting talent.  He really has a way with words, and a way of writing lyrics so incredibly uniquely, yet still relatable.  I often look at the lyrics of their songs and think, “Hmm, that’s a really cool way of putting it…I never would’ve thought of wording that feeling or that situation that way, yet, it’s exactly how I feel.”

Sadly, the album comes to an end with Stable Song.  Gibbard brings out his falsetto again for most of this slow ballad.  The song’s meaning is perhaps the most elusive on the album.  While it’s clearly about the end of something (“Time for the final bow/Rows of deserted houses”), we’re never really told what, exactly.  It’s not a problem, necessarily- I like the fact that the album ends with a song that you can pretty much define on your own.  I, myself, think it’s just about the end of a certain time of your life; growing up and moving on and accepting all of it (“The gift of memory’s an awful curse/With age it just gets much worse/But I won’t mind”).  Anyway, no matter how you interpret it, the song is a wonderful end to the album.

The first few times I listened to Plans, I definitely didn’t hear anything special, but that may have been because I had already put Death Cab For Cutie in a negative place in my mind.  Once I shed myself of those connotations, I found an album of wonderful, almost perfect songs, and realized that it doesn’t really matter what “genre” the band or the album falls under; classifications and judgments aside, Plans is one of the best albums I own.

Rating: 5 stars

Track Listing
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 Sara Said
10. Brothers on a Hotel Bed
11. Stable Song



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