Jukebox Breakdown: Death Cab For Cutie – “Photobooth”
by Chad Jewett
Ben Gibbard has always been taken with the poetic possibilities of everyday objects. On Death Cab For Cutie’s “Title and Registration,” the Washington singer-songwriter allowed a passing realization of the irony in the word “glove box” unfurl into a long treatise on the gap between appearances and reality, offering a tour de force lesson in the ways in which our minds link sense memories and associations. On “Styrofoam Plates” the titular object soon came to symbolize the struggles left in the wake of a lousy father. In The Postal Service Gibbard did this almost non-stop, using Clark Gable as an ironic symbol of expectations and archetypes, considering the cyclical nature of climate control alongside the cyclical nature of interpersonal patterns. But this all arguably began with one of Death Cab For Cutie’s first great song, 2000’s “Photo Booth.”
Set to a toy-shop drum machine that both harkened back to Gibbard’s lo-fi sideproject, All American Quarterback and anticipated the laptop symphonies of The Postal Service, “Photo Booth” creates a gorgeous still-life of summer nostalgia and sepia memories before condensing the whole thing to a single snapshot: “Your lips touching mine in the photo booth.” But then the photo becomes the sole memento of that time, as summer ends and the principle characters part ways. What was once a happy souvenir becomes a bittersweet token, even an albatross. While critical assessment ranges pretty wide on whether or not to understand Death Cab For Cutie in the artistic movements of second wave emo, Ben Gibbard’s grasp on the ways in which we attach feelings, memories, and ideas to proper nouns puts the band right in line with The Promise Ring, Braid, and American Football who were all similarly obsessed with using objects as tokens for bigger ideas.
The song’s arrangement somehow manages to reflect the narrative’s interest in old things gathering dust. The drum machine is rickety and not unlike something emanating from an old boardwalk arcade game; digitized strings swoon at the song’s edges, sounding pleasantly sad and aged in the open air. “Photo Booth” also represented a step forward for Death Cab For Cutie, who were quickly building upon the wonderful, minimalist We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes, eventually working up to the band’s masterpiece, The Photo Album. In that sense, the song, and its attendant EP, Forbidden Love, have come to embody their subject. Like that photo booth memento, the Forbidden Love EP becomes a snapshot from a specific time or place, as nostalgic as its central theme.