Way back in April when I did my Top 5 songs by The Smiths list I had intended to do more band top fives. Then… I didn’t. So I’ll try to get back on track here with one of my favourite bands, Death Cab for Cutie. The band started out in 1997 as a solo project for lead singer Ben Gibbard, releasing the self-produced cassette You Can Play These Songs with Chords. When that was met with some buzz, he formed a band with guitarist/producer Chris Walla, bassist Nick Harmer, and drummer Nathan Good (they’ve since replaced the drummer a couple times, Jason McGerr is the current drummer). They’re now 6 albums in (not including Chords, which they mostly re-recorded as a band with Something About Airplanes), with scores of EPs thrown in to fill out their catalogue. Which gives me plenty to choose from for a relatively new band.
5. “What Sarah Said” from Plans
Probably the saddest song in the band’s catalogue of sad songs, “What Sarah Said” strikes a chord by putting aside the usual subject of pop music pain– rejection– to focus on something far more resonate: the slow passing of a loved one. Backed by an insistent piano, the song puts us in the ICU, helplessly waiting as time takes a loved one away. The chorus follows a standard DCFC technique of slowly building intensity while repeating the question “so who’s gonna watch you die?”, but the power of the song comes in the verses, as Gibbard muses that “each descending peak on the LCD took you a little farther away from me”. If you listen to the song while imagining yourself in a similar situation, with the one you love in the ICU, it’s pretty hard to not be moved to tears.
4. “Transatlanticism” from Transatlanticism
An eight minute epic, “Transatlanticism” starts off deceptively slow, with a quiet drum machine and a few chords from the keyboard backing Gibbard’s soft vocals. But, as the song passes, it builds in urgency, with Walla’s guitar joining in after the initial verse, McGarr’s subtle high hat after the second, then the entire band slowly giving more and more along with Gibbard’s repeated pleading of “I need you so much closer”. For best effect, listen to this song with headphones and your eyes closed and think of a time when you were separated from someone you loved. As each wave of crescendo hits in the second half of the song, you’ll feel the urgency that the distance between you creates. By the time you get to the part where the whole band implores “so come on”, your whole body should be in shivers.
3. “Photobooth” from The John Byrd EP
Originally released on the Forbidden Love EP, I prefer the live version of “Photobooth” from The John Byrd EP. Both are great versions, but the live version is played at a higher tempo that drives it much better. As good a song about summer love that you’ll ever hear, “Photobooth” is a great example of Death Cab’s ability to find love songs within small moments, this time being driven to reflect on a fleeting summer affair upon coming across a picture of the two taken at a photobooth.
2. “Styrofoam Plates” from The Photo Album
Perhaps the angriest song in Death Cab’s catalogue, “Styrofoam Plates” tells a first-person story of attending the funeral of the protogonist’s deadbeat father, while trying to come to terms with the life-long anger he held for the man who is now being honoured and eulogised for being something he wasn’t. Structurally, it follows a similiar template as “Transatlanticism” and “What Sarah Said”, building in intensity until it reaches a crescendo two-thirds of the way in. But instead of feeling Gibbard’s sorrow or longing, the crescendo, hammered home with then-drummer Michael Schorr‘s insistent pounding, reveals the seething rage Gibbard feels for the man he feels to be a “bastard in life, thus a bastard in death”. (NOTE: the song, while written in the first person, isn’t actually about Gibbard’s father, but rather the father of a friend of his).
1. “Title and Registration” from Transatlanticism
The only song on this list released as a single, “Title and Registration” is probably the first Death Cab for Cutie song I really loved, and the biggest reason I’m a fan of the band. Uncharacteristically for the band, it’s a somewhat uptempo song. Characteristically, it’s a song about the disappointment and regret of lost love (literally, “where disappointment and regret collide” is a lyric in the song). As with “Photobooth”, this song finds meaning in a small moment, this time when Gibbard happens upon a photo of a happier time while searching through the glove compartment of his car. What I like most about the song, other than the head-bobbing tempo, is his wry observation that we really shouldn’t refer to it as a “glove compartment”, since no one uses it to store gloves.