Review Summary: Really, Plans is - perhaps predictably - the sound of a talented and relevant band playing it a little bit too safe on their first major label release.
Try for just a second to put yourself in Ben Gibbard's shoes.
When Death Cab for Cutie formed in 1997 with Gibbard on vocals and guitar, Chris Walla on guitar, Nicholas Harmer on bass and Nathan Good on drums, they were part of a surface-breaking crack-team of indie-rock groups making music in their bedrooms and playing small-time gigs at senior centers. As 2005 arrives, 8 years and 2 new drummers down the line, they are about to release Plans, their first major label effort and the potential deal-breaker for...well, their careers.
Transatlanticism has them noticed; the world has waited with bated breath for two years to see if, and how, the big-time will skew the sound they have honed through 4 previous LPs and came close to perfecting on the aforementioned pre-decessor. If you expected them to continue along the same white line, you might be disappointed; Plans is definitely different to Transatlanticism.
Much of what has made them successful up to this point is, of course, still present. Gibbard has gone nowhere; the record is riddle with his witty musings on how the world plays us ('i send my thoughts to far-off destinations/so they may have a chance of finding a place where they're far more suited than here') and how we play the world ('and all you see/is where else you could be when you're at home'). Melodic, soaring riffs and choruses will grab you and have you humming along after only a second listen.
In fact, it's hard to find a song here that won't intoxicate you and get inside of your head. 'Different Names for the Same Thing' has fairly little to say and is a very skippable track, but its refrain is still going to drive you crazy; perhaps the only song without a noteworthy hook is the somewhat disappointing finale, 'Stable Song', a re-working of the title-track from 2002's Stability EP.
In fairness, the second half of Plans is a tour de force of songwriting. What Sarah Said, a frankly beautiful piano-led track about visiting a hospital in somebody's last hours, builds to a climax after just under 6 and a half minutes, but you would never have it down as being that long. 'Crooked Teeth' contains some of the best stuff Gibbard has ever written, and it is well-executed with a bassline that, though simple, cuts through at just the right moments. 'I Will Follow You Into The Dark' is an intriguing and heart-warming hollow-guitar based ballad which treads almost into new (although probably more poppy) territory.
But Plans is a flawed album. It is not a BAD album; it's very listenable and will work its way into your bloodstream fast enough. But here's the thing. Transatlanticism ALSO got you lost behind walls of sound and in Gibbard's trademark feather-light voice, but every now and then it hit you with an absolute sledgehammer of emotion right in the gut. Plans is lacking the sincerity and the raw passion in everything Death Cab have done up to this point. The closest it comes is on 'What Sarah Said' ('Love is watching someone die/so who's gonna watch you die"') and in truth, the album's best track could easily be mistaken for a Transatlanticism-period song.
But the rest of the record seems so removed from the emotion of the lyrics. 'Someday You Will Be Loved' is a not-so-shining example of what is wrong with almost every song on the album to some degree. The lyrics are well written and as a song, it does WORK. It's easy enough to sing along to and has a few interesting quirks towards the end. But the emotional value of the words is almost entirely killed by the vocal melody's seemingly apathetic drawl and the largely uninteresting wall of electric guitar and piano sat behind a matter-of-fact delivery we're just not used to from the masters of sentiment.
Really, Plans is - perhaps predictably - the sound of a talented and relevant band playing it a little bit too safe on their first major label release. Maybe that was to be expected. The problem with Death Cab is that their sincerity and their edge was what MADE them, and when you over-produce things or strangle some of the creative and breathtaking moments that are so suspiciously absent here, you risk alienating listeners. When it's real and raw - like on 'What Sarah Said' - it's fantastic, but it happens all too rarely for this album to make an impact.
You will get on with Plans. It's like a lovable border collie that's always going to be there, and will probably do what you tell it to, but when you take it out for walks nobody's all that interested in it because there's nothing really special about it. Death Cab for Cutie are far from a band that sounds lost or dying, but their next record needs to bring back some of the grit and the risks that got them this far.