It’s hard to believe that Death Cab For Cutie has been around for 20 years and counting. This is a band that has achieved the rare status of widespread commercial success on their terms. The newest album calledd Thank You For Today will be a defining moment for the band. It is the first proper studio album without guitarist/producer Chris Walla, and there are many fans (*raises hand*) who remain highly skeptical on the quality of a Death Cab For Cutie without Walla. In honor this new album and the crossroads this band is currently at, time to look back on and rank the Death Cab discography…
#9. Something About Airplanes – There can be a charm in hearing a band in its early stages figuring it all out, but this primitive version of Death Cab is rough in just about every way. The instrumental lines are clunky, Gibbard’s vocals are muffled for no reason, and the majority of songs are mercilessly slow and dull. “Pictures At An Exhibition” holds up the best while an energized one-two punch of “Amputations” and “Fake Frowns” shows the most musical potential. Something About Airplanes is part of the Death Cab story but the only enjoyment to be found from it is in the tall task of connecting it to the evolved product heard today.
#8. The Photo Album – The Photo Album is the most dominated by Gibbard of any Death Cab record. Every note exists as a storytelling device – a convenient excuse to seriously tinker with the bread-and-butter Death Cab sound for the first time. In some cases, like the tom groove on “A Movie Script Ending” or the Rhodes piano on “Blacking Out The Friction,” it’s a welcome step into unchartered territory. But more times than not the rest of the band sounds restrained rather than complimentary and Gibbard could’ve benefited from musical support. The level of emotional resonance needed carry songs like “Why Would You Want To Live Here” and “Styrofoam Cups” over the finish line is clearly not sustainable.
#7. We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes – Death Cab operates at peak indie rock mode on this one. There are the wordy choruses, weaving guitars, and brooding undercurrent that feels like they aren’t out to please anyone. Ensemble playing and arrangement take noticeable leaps in songs like “For What Reason” and “Company Calls” while “Little Fury Bugs” and “No Joy In Mudville” improve on the vibe from Songs About Airplanes. While later albums have darker moments, We Have The Facts … provides them continuously and without release, arguably making this the band’s most sorrowful album. Perhaps its relentless despondency is a reason that it rates as the favorite among many fans to this day.
#6. Thank You For Today – The verdict is still out to some extent on Thank You For Today but this much is clear – Death Cab indulges in some of their most poppiest textures ever on record. There are 80s synth pads, tight arpeggios, riff dominated leads, muted drums. Gibbard’s voice, literally and metaphorically, is largely obscured throughout and by the end of the album it’s a tired effect – especially in the absence of Walla’s signature sonics. “Summer Years” is an early album highlight and the only song that could fit in with mid-2000s Death Cab. There’s a charm in “Autumn Love” and “When We Drive” that endears them increasingly with each listen. But there are some scary misses here too to balance out the quality moments, namely the woefully redundant “Gold Rush.” Thank You For Today lacks themes and direction but has enough good to prevent people from giving up on a Walla-less Death Cab entirely.
#5. Codes and Keys – By this time Gibbard had infamously married Zoey Deschanel and moved to Los Angeles. Many believe this negatively altered his writing and the proof is in the lyrics – a consistent Death Cab strength that is uncharacteristically weak for much of Codes and Keys. “Portable Television” and “Underneath The Sycamore” are overtly pedestrian while some otherwise forgettable songs are saved by Chris Walla production sauce. But a Ben Gibbard largely devoid of melancholy isn’t all bad – “Unobstructed Views” is a beautiful soundscape while “Stay Young Go Dancing” is a charming mission statement. And there are still flashes of classic Death Cab on “You Are A Tourist” and “St. Peter’s Cathedral.” It’s an inconsistent record, but hardly deserving of the vitriol it receives from many fans. Time should ultimately be kind to Codes and Keys.
#4. Kintsugi – Kintsugi is a considerably dialed back and compact effort. There are no songs with divergent paths, no elaborate musical textures aside from a brief atmospheric opening to “No Room In Frame.” Like it’s predecessor, Kintsugi once again bears a strong influence of Ben Gibbard’s personal life. While Gibbard may claim that he “holds no guns” in writing about his divorce there are reflections here that are angry, (“Black Sun,”) petty (“Good Help(Is Hard To Find)”), and spiteful (“Ingenue”). But the craftsmanship of the songs can allow for fans to forgive Gibbard for existing outside of an abstract lyrical world for once. The intimacy and directness on Kintsugi is refreshing, actually. It had been several albums since there was a song as minimal as “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life.” Such a personal collection of material probably didn’t lend well to Walla’s strengths, making as good of time as any for him to transition out of the band.
#3. Plans – Up until this point Death Cab existed within a sound or a production but there’s a noticeable ownership taken on Plans. The songs are largely downtrodden but are so interestingly arranged that the record’s gravitas almost goes unnoticed. There’s lot of all time greatness here- “Marching Bands Of Manhattan,” “What Sarah Said,” and “Brothers On A Hotel Bed” are three of their most complete songs while “Soul Meets Body” and “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” remain their catchiest. Plans may not have been a make or break album per say but elevated the band to an all important level of sustained success.
#2. Transatlanticism – For all intents and purposes Death Cab figured themselves out as a band on Transatlanticism and the result is their first bold, truly fantastic album. There is a wider ranger in song dynamics (“The New Year” vs “Passenger Seat”) and the band really goes for it at both extremes. Gibbard’s lyrics are more efficient, even incorporating wordless pop hooks for the first time on “Lightness” and “The Sound Of Settling.” Chris Walla officially arrives as a producer on the title track and flushes the album out with all kinds of impressive production. Death Cab traded angst for poise on Transatlanticism and the result is focused and well-sculpted record that still holds up as one of their very best.
#1. Narrow Stairs – There’s a *narrow* margin between several top Death Cab albums but ultimately Narrow Stairs carries the most superlatives. It is their most dense, their most eclectic, their darkest and the strongest collection of songs from beginning to end (except for “Talking Bird,” which should be totally forgotten). All band members are operating in full force – Ben Gibbard at a perfect intersection of concise and evocative, Chris Walla using an all-hands-on-deck style of production, and the unsung rhythm section of Jason McGerr and Nick Harmer holding down the fort during the album’s many twists and turns. New ground is broken all over this record – the long jam in “I Will Possess You Heart,” the surf rock of “No Sunlight,” the Indian instrumentation on “Pity and Fear.” Narrow Stairs is an undeniable peak in the band’s creativity.
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