Besides Death Cab for Cutie—and Coldplay, and Raffi—has any other group taken the un-art of the inoffensive to such great heights? Not a single note, word, or tempo on Plans, the Seattle-based indie-rock quartet’s major-label debut, dares goose the gander, get the goose, pickle the dill, what have you. In return for their caution, Death Cab have scored soundtrack gigs and magazine covers. Even for Spin they won’t pull out the cock socks, though. Shit, these boys won’t even wear polos without an undershirt.
This band fears question marks like dogs fear bathtubs. Organs swell in “Marching Bands of Manhattan” and should burst, but instead the chords resolve as tritely as drummer Jason McGerr’s labored build and singer Ben Gibbard’s emote-by-numbers melody. When this cutie sings, “Your love is gonna drown,” he means just that. Cigars are always cigars here, love, so do yourself a favor and get out of the water.
Harder isn’t necessarily better in rock, nor faster stronger. Surely 1999’s Metallica–San Francisco Symphony collabo cleared that up. But Death Cab’s pussyfooting also keeps them from writing good pop songs—the infectious, ubiquitous, relentless kind. “Soul Meets Body,” their fifth studio album’s R.E.M.-wannabe first single, is expertly produced and succinctly written, but so is every built-for-radio song. That “ba-dap ba-dap bap bah” hook does it a great service. But it only happens once.
Bad girl Cutie, what have you done? Is this some major-label top-down water-down, perhaps? The thing is, it’s not. As 2003’s Transatlanticism suggested and Plans all but notarizes, Death Cab have been chasing that thirtysomething sophistirock sound since as far back as side B of 2001’s The Photo Album. Now we know: “We Laugh Indoors”—Death Cab’s hardest rocker, rhythmically surprising and excitingly dissonant but undeniably pop—was “Soul Meets Body” in chrysalis. “For What Reason,” a sloppy open hi-hat stomp once accused of sounding too Modest Mouse, was a litany of mistakes that “Crooked Teeth” redeems, thank the Christ. The blippy haze of “Different Names for the Same Thing”—pleasant enough, but a trial to stick with for five minutes—makes Gibbard’s Postal Service synthplop sound as trenchant as Merzbow.
Don’t call it a sellout—call it willful co-optation. “Death Cab is almost like a password for people willing to go outside the mainstream to connect with music,” Josh Schwartz, creator of The O.C., told Spin. “You feel like ‘I love listening to their music, and I wish I was friends with them.'” Like Bright Eyes, Death Cab embody that nebulous but increasingly more marketable “indie sound”—music that’s supposedly more human-authentic because a human being made it, not a corporation, more worthwhile because commercial-radio fare is disposable by definition. Even if those claims were true, Death Cab’s music wouldn’t necessarily be more interesting, nor would Gibbard’s “I cannot pretend that I felt any regret/Because each broken heart will eventually mend” be any less hokey. Death Cab are full-grown men trapped in indie-rock bodies; at least the emo-punk kids have the heart to halve their hearts.
So what’s most fascinating about Death Cab—as indicated by all the “Vote for Change tour this, O.C. that” ink dominating Plans‘ early press—is their perfection of acoustic alchemy. They make something out of nothing-rock, attracting casuals not with the music—how anyone could lap up this prissy bullshit is beyond me—but with what it means to listen to the music. Death Cab succeed by refusing to offend. That can be an admirable trait in a person, but never in a musician.
But what’s most confusing about Death Cab is how comfortably they’ve settled into their role as pop’s go-to heart-on-sleeve intellectuals—the mainstream’s alternative to the mainstream’s mainstream. Schwartz compares Death Cab’s appeal to that of The O.C.’s nerdy Seth Cohen, an on-camera fan of the band. Like Seth, “Most people feel pretty insecure most of the time, and hearing that in music makes you feel less alone.”
Maybe it’s just that I don’t watch much TV.