Review Summary: "What ghosts exist behind these attic walls?"
There are some passages in music, whether it be the melancholic indie rock of Death Cab for Cutie’s early days or otherwise, that are incredibly difficult, perhaps even impossible, to describe, not because they’re necessarily strange or even confusing, but because of the sheer emotional weight that they have. A moment like this may be expertly written, or performed with incredible passion, or maybe placed within the context of a piece in a way that shouldn’t have worked but somehow it DID, or any combination of those things, but at the end of the day it’s still an impeccable challenge to figure out what the magic factor is that makes that passage a brilliant one. These moments in music, of course, vary from person to person, depending on the experiences that the person in question has had that cause them to feel a certain way while listening to a certain piece, or maybe even just on the mood that the person is in when they hear that piece for the first time. You might find such a passage, for example, at the end of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Your friend might find a similar passage in the middle of David Gilmour’s guitar solo in Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb. Maybe neither. Maybe both. It’s all completely subjective.
For me, one such a moment finds itself again and again in the final minute of No Joy in Mudville, the best stand-alone song on Death Cab for Cutie’s forgotten masterpiece and quintessential break-up album We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes. After a particularly strong final statement of the song’s heart-wrenching chorus, the texture completely breaks apart and gives way to a tender but thoroughly devastating afterthought; the guitars and bass wander longingly into infinity while the harmonics ring like lonely wind chimes in a frigid winter breeze. It lasts for only a minute but it seems like forever, whispering feelings of failure, dissolution and solemn acceptance all the while. These feelings first manifest themselves in Company Calls Epilogue and find their culmination here.
But then, the unthinkable happens, and the texture breaks apart again, this time giving way to the uplifting opening tones of the stunning closer Scientist Studies. In this song, there is nothing but optimism and pensive reflection, representing the discovery within oneself of the determination to ask questions and to seek the answers wholeheartedly. The guitar work is played with unbelievable tenderness so that the loud moments are that much more powerful; Ben Gibbard’s vocals are earnest, sincere, and more emotionally involved here than on any other Death Cab release, and his drumming may not be particularly virtuosic but it nevertheless drives the music as it moves through unbelievable worlds of colour and emotion. As Scientist Studies reaches its close, it seems to reach towards infinity again, this time perhaps even touching it briefly, as distortion fills the air and a sustained D# in the guitar hangs on for just a bit too long before giving way to the finality of silence, forever leaving the word “HOPE” on the tip of the listener’s tongue.
To call this album Death Cab for Cutie’s masterwork would be an understatement, perhaps even to the point of being an insult to its legacy; this music is entirely devoid of the cold, detached Death Cab aesthetic that we’ve come to know and occasionally love in recent years, and it’s completely the better for it. This may not be the band’s definitive album, but it’s far better than anything that would later come to define them, and that’s something that we, the listeners, have a responsibility to understand and cherish. This is Death Cab for Cutie’s (and Ben Gibbard’s, for that matter) best record. Nothing else will ever compare.