Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now.
Anniversary Records: Death Cab For Cutie – Plans
by Chad Jewett
Considering the album’s breakthrough success, its Grammy nomination, its platinum certification, it isn’t entirely accurate to talk about Plans, the 2005 LP from indie rock greats Death Cab For Cutie as a typical “difficult follow-up”. In many ways it’s a more assertively pop-shaped record than the band’s previous, now-classic, triumph, 2003’s Transatlanticism. There were fewer balladic dirges, more of a push behind the hooks of songs like “Crooked Teeth” and “Summer Skin”, a brighter, more insistent sonic palette that has become far more influential on what we might call – excuse the oxymoron – “major label indie pop”. Transatlanticism was the last album that would sound like it came from the band’s bedroom. Plans was the first that sounded like it came from ample resources and big budgets, and that change would eventually come to stand in for the fairly anemic thing that guitar-driven indie music is today (through no fault of Death Cab). Chris Walla’s careful, rich production would get Xeroxed to the degree that the kind of music Plans excelled at is now as market-driven and sterile as the smartphones and compact sedans its imitators are used to sell. As of yet, Plans is Death Cab For Cutie’s last great album, and even certain songs, like the aimless “Soul Meets Body”, presage the watery, diffuse indie-pop of last year’s disappointing Kintsugi. Yet at its best, Plans is a near definitive statement on loss, a solar system of planets spinning hopelessly and helplessly away from one another.
The real oddity of the paradigm shift that Death Cab’s success marked is that while, sonically, Plans is a gorgeous feat of modern engineering, spiritually it’s a pained, sorrowful collection of melancholic character studies. It doesn’t sound like the perennial challenging sequel, but thematically, it’s of a piece with similarly captivating yet devastating breakthroughs like Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning and Rilo Kiley’s More Adventurous. Ironically, even with just a decade’s hindsight, there’s no doubting the obvious triumvirate that those three bands and those three albums form, and not only because Ben Gibbard, Conor Oberst, and Jenny Lewis all said what we were all thinking by collectively covering The Travelling Wilburys. They’re the Clash/Ramones/Sex Pistols or the NWA/Public Enemy/EPMD of a certain kind of bookish, detail-heavy indie-pop. And now it’s hard not to hear Plans as the palpably sad closing of an amazing 12-month period that saw each group release their best work in what has to be the most friendly relay race in popular music history. Plans now finds itself in the odd place of both a bellwether and a high-water mark – the last bittersweet echoes of a mini golden age.
It’s an album that pairs the chiming major key whirr of opener “Marching Bands of Manhattan” to a chorus devoted to pure defeatism: “Sorrow drips into your heart through a pin hole / Just like a faucet that leaks and there is comfort in the sound / But while you debate half empty and half full / It slowly rises, your love is gonna drown”, i.e., “don’t bother with optimism or pessimism: it’s all doomed”. It’s a lush, sweeping song – beautiful really – but the lyrical rendering of slow, heartbroken drift lends the music’s sweetness a sharp contrast, like burnt caramel. Later, Ben Gibbard, channeling whatever oracle-muse gave Paul McCartney “Yesterday” and Smokey Robinson “My Girl”, somehow manages to spin that fatalism into a kind of gallant romanticism on “I Will Follow You Into The Dark”. It’s a song that remains almost painfully affecting if it catches you the right way, somehow managing to begin with a line as dark as “Love of mine, someday you will die” and still resolve itself into a staggering declaration of faith and commitment, Springsteen-esque in its stiff-upper-lip poignancy. Consisting of only a lone acoustic guitar and Gibbard’s plucky alto, often scraping the top of his range, the song has a certain spectral grip – starkly, almost drastically intimate amongst an album of quite dense, ornate production. It’s the sort of composition that, thanks to Gibbard’s almost mystical way with melody, the song’s simple and sturdy progression, and the bravely honest nature of the track’s assessment of love and devotion, will likely age into a standard, as dependable as Gershwin or Cole Porter.
The rest of Plans lives somewhere between the sad, defeated final moments of “Marching Bands” and the ghostly love poetry of “I Will Follow”. Sitting right atop that divide you find “What Sarah Said”, a rolling piano ballad accompanied by a gently mathematical drum-beat (something the band would explore more on the underrated, groove-heavy Narrow Stairs) that dramatizes love and loss in real time as our narrator holds vigil at the hospital bed of someone who won’t be getting better, memorably offering that “Love is watching someone die”, before pointedly asking us to ask ourselves: “So who’s gonna watch you?”. The song is, frankly, a challenge: painful in its deployment of Gibbard’s eye for detail – the peaks and valleys of a heart monitor, the aging magazines of a waiting room – and devastating in its commitment to making its grief visceral. In an accompanying video (part of an album-length collection of short films by various directors) we see a woman desperately trying to reach her lover who sits, inconsolable, at the edge of their bed, only to find out, at the clip’s end, that she is a ghost, worlds away yet hauntingly unable to leave his side – invisible yet present. It’s that kind of numb, gutting sorrow that “What Sarah Said” manages to translate, even if the results are often a deeply upsetting listen. It’s of a piece with Plans’ seeming modus operandi, to make lovely sounds accompany tragedies and failures.
“Summer Skin”, a Modest Mouse-esque autumnal semi-ballad balanced between Nick Harmer’s plucky bass and glassy slabs of piano, paints a gorgeous solstice only to very quickly turn to equinox (“And labor day came and went / And we shed what was left of our summer skin”) – another moment of troubled farewells. The song is practically Gatsby-esque, the golden glories of summer evenings glimpsed in hindsight, between falling leaves. There’s similar longing to be found in “Your Heart Is An Empty Room”, its subject caught between wanderlust and homesickness, set to another delicate concoction of carefully-dabbed piano and an airier version of early U2’s driving, glassy strums. Plans reaches its acme with its penultimate song, the shimmering, beat-driven “Brothers On A Hotel Bed”, its cubist groove (drummer Jason McGerr all but defines the album) and svelte sense of space recalling Gibbard’s work in The Postal Service as the song traces one more relationship slipping slowly into entropy: “And I have learned that even landlocked lovers yearn for the sea, like navy men, / ‘Cause now we say goodnight from our own separate sides like brothers on a hotel bed”. It’s the last, and most strikingly realist, in a litany of friends and lovers that can’t seem to help themselves and can’t seem to defy their own worst instincts. What makes “Brothers” especially compelling is the band’s collective light touch – whether it’s Ben Gibbard’s willingness to trust us in filling in the lines with his few spare details (his melody is especially wrenching, at once airily tuneful and wholly bittersweet), or the carefully etched synthesizers and percussion that criss-cross the song in modish patterns. It’s a moment of quiet resignation that still manages to cut, even amongst the truly heartrending stories that precede it – mostly because, at their best, Death Cab For Cutie were absolutely unparalleled in their ability to capture a single instant, and tell you everything you could ever feel about it.