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.
But what cruel and fickle gods our relationships make. Plans romanticizes relationships as bits of fleeting loveliness in an indifferent cosmos. But love is only the half of it, and this is where Plans fails. Plans does not take into account human brokenness: the one thing that makes love in a godless universe painful and sometimes impossible. Parasitism and perversion gnaw through the strands that hold us together; what happens to our romanticism when we learn that at heart we are all essentially selfish at heart? Faith rooted in nothing more than the capricious mood swings of fellow dying animals is a dingy faith indeed when actually lived out; in fact, how can we even have faith in our own ability to love? We are just as selfish, just as insecure, and with nothing anchoring our relationships besides hormones and a consuming need for companionship, what is there to keep us from disillusionment?
Death Cab's 2008 release, Narrow Stairs, acknowledges the problems of Plans. No anthems to undying love here; rather, narratives of broken people in broken relationships, songs of regret and sadness. "Bixby Canyon Bridge" finds a man looking for some sort of message in the suicide of his loved one, some sort of life-validating moral to this tragedy: "And I want to know my fate / If I keep up this way." The answer he gets, however, is complete and total silence, and we are left "no closer to any kind of truth / As I must assume was the case with you."
The ominous thing for Gibbard is not the suicide but the silence. There is no closure, no higher meaning. While in Plans he wanted to follow his love past death into the great beyond, from the start of Narrow Stairs Gibbard faces mortality with questions unanswered and unanswerable. The sweet longing in Plans has been replaced by a much more real despair and confusion.
According to Narrow Stairs, we find fulfillment in relationships, and our world ends when our relationships end. From the desperation of the woman in "Cath," to the manic cynicism of "No Sunlight," Gibbard tells us stories of relationships that just don't work out, of ideals that get crushed by the cruelty of the world and, more often, by our own insecurities. Against the crunch of fuzzy guitar riffs and crashing drum beats, an almost snarling Gibbard narrates from the perspective of the pathetic and the profoundly wounded. "You Can Do Better Than Me" admits these nagging doubts against a sardonically cheerful jangle of sleigh bells and Hammond organ: "I'm starting to feel / We stayed together out of fear / Of dying alone." We all start relationships for selfish motives, so in Gibbard's universe, why pretend that they are anything more than they are: transactions between dying parasites? There is no need for expressions of eternal love, because in a naturalist's world, there is no eternity.
Narrow Stairs closes with the dour "The Ice Is Getting Thinner," duet about old love that has drifted apart: "We're not the same and it seems to me / There's nowhere we can go with nothing underneath / And it saddens me to say what we both knew was true / That the ice was getting thinner under me and you." Plans seeks transcendence through love and relationships; Narrow Stairs shows just how shaky this solution really is. But brokenness is an intrinsic part of who we are. Sacrificial love only makes sense when we acknowledge that there is something beyond this life worth sacrificing for.
Codes and Keys
The progression from the pessimism of Narrow Stairs to the contentment of Codes and Keys is perhaps attributable less to a shift in ideologies than to a shift in circumstances. Between the two albums, Gibbard married Zooey Deschanel, seemingly curing him of the blues—and it shows in the album. The melancholy of Plans and the chilling monologues of Narrow Stairs have mostly been replaced by the sweet ballad of "Stay Young, Go Dancing" and the lovely "Monday Morning." Neither Plans or Narrow Stairs put that much faith in any kind of long-term relationship; they both shared a fatalism rooted either in the temporality of life or of man's incapacity for faithfulness. Codes and Keys finds the middle-aged Gibbard in the midst of marriage, attempting to piece together some measure of stability.
Musically, the album relies on layers of dreamy, delicate synthesizers and string parts, tied to earth just enough by Gibbard's piano chords so they don't fly away. Before his vocals begin, it is already easy to tell that this is a different album entirely.
His earlier questions of mortality and depravity don't find their answers in Codes and Keys; they aren't even asked. In the joyful lead single, "You Are a Tourist," Gibbard seems to aim the song at the emotional, sensitive, and over-educated—i.e., himself—as he sings:
When there's doubt in your mind 'Cause you're thinking all the time Framing rights into wrongs Move along, move along
Let go of moody introspections and pesky questions, and face the future with a happy face. In the nearly euphoric album closer, Gibbard refuses even to acknowledge the passing of time: "When autumn's advancing / We'll stay young, go dancing." Gibbard has not found faith in humanity; he has merely become blind to the problems of his own worldview, medicating himself with the vacuous hopes that everything is going to be all right after all, that we can just forget about death and human brokenness for a time and dance all of our troubles away.
Still, Codes and Keys doesn't outright abandon naturalism. Songs like "St. Peter's Cathedral" ("That when our hearts stop ticking / This is the end / And there's nothing past this") and "Unobstructed Views" ("No perfect truth / Just our love") make it clear that the band still sees anything beyond a few dozen years of life . The problem remains, but there is no longer any interest in finding a solution. This could indicate a sort of maturing: leaving behind adolescent angst and learning to become comfortable in this world, here and now. In their worldview, finding some kind of faith in the world may just be the only way to live a happy life.
But there is no redemption in merely medicating the ache of the awareness of death. Ironically, the "maturing" of the band in Codes and Keys provides even less hope than Narrow Stairs. They have shaken hands with transience, and have made up their quarrel with the ultimate enemy: death. Codes and Keys ends the band's searching for "perfect truths" and "unobstructed views." They have settled for mainstream answers to the largest questions in existence.
Culture needs artists that illuminate unexamined assumptions, that pick through the cobwebs and dry beetles behind neon signs and dance floors. Death Cab's thoughtful lyrics provide a lens onto an empty eternity. Our culture extols hedonism and navel gazing as the only way we can ignite the fire of self-actualization and become all we can be.
Death Cab for Cute questions the purpose of lighting a candle only to have it snuffed out, and in Narrow Stairs, they shed doubt on whether or not the self is even worth actualizing in the first place. Sure, there is romance and longing, not just questions, but these only illustrate the poignancy of the problems even more. Codes and Keys shies away from searching, as if out of fear. It is much easier to assert that there is neither problem nor solution, than to live knowing that a solution might be out there, somewhere. They have given up on the questions themselves and are therefore missing the terrifying but cleansing answers behind them.
Will Jones is a sophomore majoring in English Literature at Bryan College.
Death Cab frontman Ben Gibbard recently discussed his loosely defined "faith" in an interview with Relevant magazine.
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