Review Summary: Death Cab For Cutie- a retrospective
Think back to a time when not everyone had heard of Death Cab For Cutie, back when "the berets" conversed about the band in hushed tones so that no one could overhear them and Death Cab would, in theory, remain as just another garage band. They had a right to be so protective for once, Death Cab's acceptance into the mainstream has made them, if we're honest, rather bland. Oh sure, since their recognition (which is well deserved just... unfortunate) they've spewed out some flashes of greatness here and there but it's clear that to some extent Death Cab are past it. Take front-man Benjamin Gibbard's side project "The Postal Service" as an example, it resulted in a truly phenomenal album that shows what he really can achieve but none of that greatness has been glimpsed in the more recent Death Cab albums.
So what have Death Cab lost since "We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes"? In a word, heart. That doesn't really tell you anything of course, it's the kind of thing you're more accustomed to hearing in children's cartoons or in the second Indiana Jones film, but hopefully I'll be able to justify it.
"We Have The Facts..." paints a picture of a drab Americana, full of one-off meetings, degrading friendships and lust over a girl about to marry someone else. It's not a happy picture, but it sure as hell is a believable one. I'm not sure if Gibbard intended his lyrics to transform what may have been a good, but otherwise slightly lacking album into a concept album, but they do anyway. It's not simply a random collection of songs presented to us in "We Have The Facts", but a peep-hole into Gibbard's life, something that isn't achieved at all in the more recent albums. Though to argue against myself I'd suggest that a life of tour buses and B-list fame may not be the most compelling writing material.
The lyrics that Gibbard incorporates in his album (and it is "his" album, he wrote all but two of the songs) are all that you can ask them to be: both witty and charming yet slightly depressing. He makes references to events but allows the listener to fill in the details. The chorus in "Title Track" of "Talking how the group had begun to splinter/ And I could taste your lipstick on the filter" showcases this perfectly. He's not a songwriter who's afraid to show his less than graceful moments, "Crashing through the parlour doors, what was your first reaction?/ Screaming, drunk, disorderly. I'll tell you mine", and this frankness on his part makes "We Have The Facts" a lot more genuine and easy to relate to than it would be otherwise.
If there is a criticism to be made about "We Have The Facts", it's that the band stays within the genre of calming indie-pop and doesn't even attempt to vary its tone. It can be upbeat, slow and most places in between but in the end it's safe. Some salvation is found in the fact that the tone which the album sticks with does complement the lyrics' subject matter, but this doesn't explain why there couldn't have been one or two songs in a different style. That isn't to say that there aren't some highlights musically of course, "Little Fury Bugs" brilliantly mixes quiet background distortion and slightly muzzled vocals with a fairly jaunty guitar part, it's just that it would have been nice if a little more variation was incorporated into the album.
It's sad that when you look at the newer Death Cab albums you see that musically they've come a long way from "We Have The Facts", which is ultimately quite simple though there is a beauty in that. However, while the music has improved, the feel has not. Newer additions seem too clean, too heavily mastered, too manufactured... the fuzzy tones of "We Have The Facts" are preferable to that every day of the week. When you add the lyrics that have long dissolved into made-up tales and petty social observations, it's disturbing to think that while gaining popularity, they've lost a lot of what made them so special in the first place.