"Plans" comes on the heels of significant success and exposure for Death Cab For Cutie. As well as successfully putting out two critically aclaimed albums, "Photo Album," and "Transatlanticism," Death Cab's popularity exploded largely due to the best-selling side project of lead singer Ben Gibbard. The Postal Service's "Give Up" exposed Ben's voice to a larger audience, particularly with the hit 'Such Great Heights'. The result was increased exposure for Death Cab, who had formerly been a relatively behind the scenes band that nevertheless produced some pretty impressive music.
The increased fan base and national television exposure (The O.C.) generally served to increase the anticipation for "Plans". Exposure, which can be good for sales, can sometimes detriment a band in that if an album does not live up to expectations it is usually billed as 'mediocre', even if on its own, without any prior knowledge of the band, it could usually hold its own as a well-crafted and good album. In other words, what is good music in and of itself is not seen as good due to prior expectations of the band (note the reception of Coldplay's X&Y).
Although I have been a Death Cab fan for a few years, I was nevertheless eagerly anticipating this album. Unfortunately, I was dissapointed at first listen. Before even hearing the album, I had read several negative reviews. In addition, the single 'Soul Meets Body,' although decent, was not the kind of Death Cab tune that I had been expecting. Upon hearing the album for the first time, very few tracks stuck out, and the cohesive and well-crafted sense of "Transatlanticism" was missing. In "Plans," Death Cab generally abandons rough guitar/drum work and moves towards a more polished, electronic sound. This removes some of the 'edginess' from their music and tends to make a lot of the songs in the middle portion of the album blend together.
Some albums, however, can seem average or not particluarly noteworthy on the first listen, but gradually grow on you as you listen more and more. "Plans" is such an album. There are genuine Death Cab gems here that rank with some of their best work, particularly the driving and powerful "Marching Bands of Manhattan", and the immediate accessibility and indie pop catchiness of "Crooked Teeth" that brings to mind earlier Death Cab songs such as "The Sound of Settling". Although these tracks stand out the most easily, the album contains other peices of quiet songwriting that would fit in perfectly on the mellow albums "Transatlanticism" or "We Have The Facts and We're Voting Yes". 'Summer Skin', 'Brothers on a Hotel Bed', and in a lesser sense, 'What Sarah Said' are classic Gibbard word poetry with non traditional song movements and reflective keyboard tunes. In particular, every keyboard note in "Summer Skin", although simplistic, seems perfectly placed within the song. These tracks are not throw away filler, but genuinely crafted peices that bring a lot to the worth of this album.
The problem with "Plans," in relation to Death Cab's other work, is the relative lack of flow within the album. Previous albums could be listened to straight through, without any track skipping. But on Plans, Death Cab's poppier songs, such as 'Marching Bands', 'Soul Meets Body' and 'Crooked Teeth' don't seem to fit in with the rest of the album, which is generally reflective along the lines of Transatlanticism. It's almost as if Death Cab was taking its lessons from The Postal Service's success and gunning for a few big radio hits, and then set about to make an album around these songs. This album is almost two albums in one, with very different sides of the band revealed. Additionally, the truly uninspiring song "Different Names For The Same Thing" falls right in the middle of the album, and launches into an extended electronic section which should have been removed from the album entirely. Other songs, such as the 'Stable Song', try to create a stripped back form that's completely missing the atmosphere on their deeper tracks. A listener seeking continous enjoyment will have to skip around a bit, depending on mood.
In conclusion, this is a solid album that lacks some of the perfection that Death Cab fans have come to expect. Although full of some really great songs, both introspective and poppy, it presents a band not sure of which direction to follow. The result is confusing, and ultimately makes "Plans" a weaker album that its predecessors. Nevertheless, Plans, regarded on its own is an album worth picking up.