The small but respectable label Barsuk Records is notably gone from the back of the CD case, replaced by the words, “Atlantic Recording Corporation.” Even the literally shiny liner notes scream what every music geek (or cool kid, depending) already knows: Death Cab for Cutie, the once-upon-a-time indie cult favorites, switched to a major label after a seven-year indie career. It’s a predictable move (weren’t they featured on “The O.C.” 267 times?), and it is perhaps only inevitable after a band sells half a million records. But the offense that really matters here is that “Plans,” the band’s fifth album, is a disappointment.
To be sure, the CD is neither their best nor worst. Though frontman Ben Gibbard’s sincere lyrics and pretty melodies abound, little here is daring, dynamic or particularly imaginative. Likewise, a few songs on “Plans” are very good, but even the best sound too familiar, lacking the exuberance that has carved a special place for Death Cab in the heart of hipsterdom.
Part of the problem is the lack of upbeat tracks on “Plans.” It seems bogged down by an abundance of down-tempo songs, which have never been the band’s strong suit. (Out of the album’s 11 tracks, seven of them are at least half-ballads.) “What Sarah Said,” a six-minute opus about a hospital waiting room, anticlimactically denies the listener what would have been a well-deserved emotional peak. “Summer Skin,” directed to high school kids getting over their summer flings, is fueled by an inappropriate marching-band drum, but lacks sincere energy.
Included in the band’s major label agreement was that guitarist/producer Christopher Walla would continue to produce the band’s records. And yet here it seems that he couldn’t help but turn to the mega-successful synthesized sounds of The Postal Service, frontman Gibbard’s loveable 2003 side project. If only Walla would put down his computer and pick back up the electric guitar. The album’s most ambitious song, “Different Names for the Same Thing,” gets stranded halfway between bad Coldplay and good Postal Service. The initial slow-creep promises to break out into indie-rocking glory, only to go nowhere slowly.
But not everything is bad. “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” is a stripped-down and ultimately gorgeous ode to love beyond death. A softly strummed guitar captures the simplified beauty of old Steve Earle, while Gibbard gives a wonderfully brave effort with sweetly poignant vocals. It is the album’s only must-listen.
And despite the stylistic missteps, the band clearly still has a talent for lush arrangements. “Brothers on a Hotel Bed” is built around a moving keyboard progression underneath a skittish and urgent drum beat. Again the song features Gibbard’s intimate lyrics: “‘Cause now we say goodnight/ from our own separate sides/ like brothers on a hotel bed.”
The band’s predictably earnest effusions of emotion sound best on the album’s upbeat tracks, where they escape the torture of emo. “Crooked Teeth” is the pop delight that “A Movie Script Ending” was for 2001’s “The Photo Album.” At long last, we get a guitar-powered, harmonically catchy song that is carried happily along by a jaunty bass. The opener, “Marching Bands of Manhattan,” is as good as “Plans” gets. Gibbard’s high tenor calmly sits atop placid guitars, but gains depth as he describes dark scenes: “Sorrow drips into your heart through a pinhole/ Just like a faucet that leaks/ and there is comfort in the sounds.”
Gibbard’s vocals maintain the charming boyish romanticism of “Photo Album” and its predecessors, but one has to wonder how relevant it will sound be to his original fanbase. When their “You Can Play These Songs with Chords” was released in 1999, fans chose Death Cab over Limp Bizkit and Korn. Nowadays, who knows if “Plans” will win out over hipper and more original fare like the Arcade Fire and The Decemberists?
It is certainly sad for a fan who has followed the band since then that their new record isn’t as fantastic as one hopes. Then again, it is a mediocre release from a band that is ostensibly maturing, and might one day return, bigger and better, to their harder rocking form. And there is much (“Into the Dark,” “Manhattan”) to open up the eyes and ears of an “O.C.” fan.