Review Summary: The Photo Album sees a needle slipping slowly into a finer groove where Death Cab are concerned; it's an intelligent album with a lot to offer, especially in Gibbard's word-trickery and Walla's uncanny knack of tying music to moods.
In the arena of musical criticism, there are two elements of songwriting that are inexplicably overlooked far too often. The first is the ability to construct an unforgettable melody; the second, and arguably the most frequent, is the art of imagery. That Death Cab for Cutie's third LP is titled The Photo Album is no accident; the former of these features is itself present in abundance, but the latter is the foundation from which the record builds most of its merit.
Steadier Footing - the album's opening and shortest track - could be mistaken for a prelude were it not so hauntingly graphic. Ben Gibbard, in his now trademark pensieve tone, abandons any percussion in favour of a more stripped atmosphere, which only serves to amplify his vivid description of a scene most of us are familiar with. 'All of our friends were here, they all have gone home/And here I sit, on the front porch, watching the drunks stumble forth into the night', he thinks out loud. Mellow and melodic, the vocal seeps into the back of your mind.
To expect the next nine songs to follow suit, though, would be to entirely underestimate Death Cab's ambition and prowess in terms of crafting a sound which, though distinctly theirs, still manages to be diverse. In part, this is due to Gibbard's voice, but mostly it is an amalgamation of impressive and original guitar riffs, mid-tempo yet striking rhythms and notable but unintrusive quirks.
The Photo Album suffers, at times, from a lack of continuity because of the aforementioned diversity. Several of the transitions between tracks are dodgy at best, and this is especially prominent in the early stages; although Steadier Footing's lack of drums is overcome pretty well when A Movie Script Ending starts, the abrupt ending of the second track doesn't quite fit with the almost full-percussion intro to We Laugh Indoors.
Atop that, Information Travels Faster is a song that, although good in theory and well-written in lyrical terms, does get tedious towards the end of its 4-minute play time. Death Cab prove on We Laugh Indoors that they are capable of writing long (and, for that matter, repetitive) tracks well, but the last minute and a half of Information... is a mis-step on their behalf. That said, the album picks straight back up and Blacking Out The Friction is packed very full of energy and noise, and I Was A Kaleidoscope is probably the single catchiest moment on the record.
Finally, it is nigh-on impossible to publish this review without devoting an entire section to the album's two stand-out tracks, Why You'd Want To Live Here and Styrofoam Plates. As track 5 begins with a menacing guitar riff, you can feel the urgency and passion beneath the very bottom layer of music; Styrofoam Plates, on the other hand, offers a blunt and reflective sparsity which grows to something more powerful around the two-minute mark.
What sets these tracks apart from the other 8, though - and make no mistake, the vast majority of those 8 will have you bopping your head and enjoying the melancholy - is their lyrical content. Where the usually-sentimental Gibbard turns angry on Styrofoam Plates, he growls through his teeth in the midst of a roaring last verse; where he seeks to damn Los Angeles earlier on the album, there is a definite certainty to his tone which, due to its rarity, adds so much to the song when placed alongside the rest of their back catalogue.
The Photo Album sees a needle slipping slowly into a finer groove where Death Cab are concerned; it's an intelligent album with a lot to offer, especially in Gibbard's word-trickery and Walla's uncanny knack of tying music to moods. Some of it is forgettable - after Styrofoam Plates, the last two tracks are certainly an anti-climax - but it's a very listenable stepping-stone for a band capable of doing great things.