Death Cab for Cutie inhabits a unique position in modern pop music. While not technically part of the "indie" movement (since signing with Atlantic in 2005), the Seattle band has garnered enough hipster and popular sway with their sensitive malaise to give them a hearing with sophisticated bohemians and emotional teenagers at the same time.
Death Cab has also, for better or for worse, taken its place as one of the most coherent and articulate representatives of naturalism on the American music scene today. Their songs probe the implications of the ideas that guide them, and more broadly, the culture at large; they provide an intelligent challenge to Christians considering the ultimate question of man's purpose and existence. If their music has resonated in our culture, it is because their lyrics attempt to attach ideas to the experiential soma sweep of postmodernism.
They clearly state the ideas that many other pop artists only assume, namely that life is all there is and that it is up to us to fill it. Their most recent three albums, Plans, Narrow Stairs, and the recent Codes and Keys, chart a progression through the different manifestations of our culture's naturalism, from romantic despair, to near nihilism, to the rejection of these troubling questions entirely as unanswerable and even dangerous. At the end, with no answers in sight, it is the examined life that is no longer worth living for the naturalist.
Released in 2005 to widespread acclaim, Plans sold over a million copies with its combination of hopeless romanticism and polished arrangements. On that album's "I'll Follow You into the Dark," frontman Ben Gibbard croons:
If heaven and hell decide that they both are satisfied And illuminate the 'nos' on their vacancy signs, If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks, I'll follow you into the dark.
The message of the song (and the album) is that life is short and difficult with no ultimate meaning, but if we can just huddle together, we may find some cure for our loneliness and despair. There is no heaven or hell, just the body heat of another mortal to keep us warm.
Every song on Plans deals with the heartache and sweetness of our limited time on earth. "What Sarah Said" explores, with gorgeous poetic detail, the impermanence of existence while striving for transcendence in the world of relationships. Over a quietly insistent piano riff, Gibbard narrates the pain of losing a loved one: "And it came to me there that every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time / As I stared at my shoes in the ICU that reeked of piss and 409." Life is short; we cannot look ahead or count on anything here because it will just be snatched away from us with death. The personification of "Father Time" is appropriate, considering Death Cab's somewhat-less-than-spiritual worldview: in the absence of God, Father Time becomes the all-powerful arbiter of human affairs. Comfort at the edge of existence, if it can be found at all, is found in clinging to another person: "Love is watching someone die / So who's going to watch you die?"
This question cuts to the heart of Plans' doomed romanticism. If existence has an expiration date, who is there to comfort us while we wait? The only thing more horrifying than an eternal desert is facing it alone. In Death Cab's universe, the love of another person gives us enough courage to live under the shadow of our own extinction. To put it cynically, love is two dying animals distracting themselves enough from the reality of their condition that they can live out their short years, relatively untroubled. Christianity provides another way, but it is important to realize just how powerful this need for companionship and connection is, even in the absence of any higher deity. Where there are no gods, humans will build them from each other.