By: Robert Howell
It's all too easy to lambaste quondam indie darlings for hopping to the majors, and Death Cab for Cutie will now receive such backlash reactions after its move to Atlantic. This will be a mistake. Not because its new album Plans, is good. It isn't. The backlash will be a mistake because the banality of Plans has nothing to do with Atlantic. Plans would be the next Death Cab album no matter what: it continues along the same disappointing trajectory Transatlanticism began to trace. This is not to say that there are not good songs on the new album, and it is not to say that Ben Gibbard doesn't have talent bursting out of his skull. There are, and he does. But all that talent and all those songs aren't enough to keep Plans from being dead on arrival. The puzzle is to figure out what is going wrong.
Plans is ultimately a pretty boring album, and the primary reason is its lack of diversity. There is a homogeneity among the songs, within the songs, in the lyrics, and finally in the production itself. None of these things characterized the Death Cab for Cutie of, say, We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes.
Among the songs: This album has no climax, and the character of the album has very little noticeable arc. The problem is not only that there are no rockers, though we are entitled to miss them. It's more that too many songs have the same, low level of energy, never crunching or snapping. Pretty songs are splendid, but they gain so much from their setting. With albums, we can achieve a level of poignancy by setting songs apart from one another, drawing from their contrasts. Pretty songs need this most. Otherwise, they can be a little embarrassing. Witness, "I Will Follow You into the Dark." Now without knowing anything else, aren't you blushing?
Within the songs: One of the reasons to love old Death Cab for Cutie is that the songs seemed packed with ideas. You got the idea that Gibbard had a song, Walla had a song, and they spliced the two together. There were beat changes and octave jumps, nicely orchestrated moves from twinkly guitar lines to crispy chords. Now one has the feeling that Walla is twiddling the knobs (too much for his own good), and Gibbard is enjoying singing too much to care about changing things up.
In the lyrics: Depression is great, but an awful lot of these songs are about loneliness and death. Combined with the general low-energy tone of the album, this gets kind of old. Even good lyrics look shitty when written in the middle of a record review, so I won't bother. In general, the lyrics have their usually clever metaphors and literary tropes, but missing are the vignettes with intriguing little details that made one invest into the idea of the song.
In the production: Death Cab for Cutie's albums are getting slicker and slicker, thanks no doubt to the experience Chris Walla has gained through his other production projects. The result: an already safe album is made to seem antiseptic without even the occasional artistic graininess to keep our interest.
All that being said, there are some pleasant moments on the album, which in the context of another album might reveal themselves as gems. And Gibbard's voice, like everything else on this album, sounds very pretty. Unfortunately, pretty doesn't keep the heads off the pillows.