Few bands are more reliable than Death Cab For Cutie when it comes to consistently putting out solid records to appease their bookish fanbase. Twenty-five years into a career that's seen them go from underground heroes to Grammy nominees and now elder statesmen, the Seattle group have an enviable back catalogue of classics that's only set to grow stronger with the release of new collection 'Asphalt Meadows'.
If they've built their reputation on angular, considered guitar lines and ambient pieces that swell and ebb, 'Asphalt Meadows' sees Death Cab crank things up and demand attention. "I don't know if it was feeling of being homebound for as long as we were," frontman Ben Gibbard explains from the French Alps, where he is enjoying a pre-tour getaway, "but I just wanted to play some fuckin' loud music."
"Being isolated for as long as we all were, I think there's been a tendency among some artists to take that time to become very introspective and very quiet. A lot of the music that probably was written during that period was written in bedrooms and living rooms while their children were sleeping at night. I think a lot of quieter music is coming out of that period because of the way it was written," he muses. "So when I was at home writing these songs, I just wanted to play loud music. I wanted the feeling of catharsis of just stomping on a distortion pedal, making a large sound. A loud sound."
After a teasing intro that's classic Death Cab, opener 'I Don't Know How I Survive' makes good on that promise, with a direct sludge of overdriven guitars and unrelenting drums. "[The album] at times is very violent and loud. For a band that has a reputation as being quiet and pensive and introspective, I just really wanted to do something different and make something loud."
Lead single 'Roman Candles' is the exemplar, borrowing a drum loop from Krautrock group Faust in its downbeat verses. "I just came out the gates with the first thing on my mind, this rant about my anxiety and isolation, more maudlin feelings," Ben explains. "But when I got to the chorus, I had this powerful drive to say something positive. I feel like I'm really just spewing it in the verses. It's very self-effacing, very pathetic in some ways," he admits. "I really wanted the chorus to say something that would pull me out of the verse."
That chorus is a release, lyrically and musically, with the tension of those torrid verses ("It's been a battle just to wake and greet the day, then they all disappear like sugar in my coffee") giving way to acceptance ("I am learning to let go of everything I tried to hold"). "One of the reasons I like writing songs linearly is that they become a conversation with yourself," he reveals. "It's like talking through an idea with your therapist, and you're going down this dark path with it. I catch myself and go, 'Actually, I want to also bring some perspective to this. Things are not really this bad. I can pull myself out of this'."
Death Cab are, of course, no strangers to writing about loneliness, isolation and self-doubt, but Ben was keen to avoid writing what he calls a 'pandemic record' because of how it would land once released into a recovering world, audiences eager to make up for lost time. "I was very aware of how people would view material written about and in the time we were living. They weren't going to want to revisit that two years later. We're not a party band, but people are gonna want a fucking party. They're gonna want to put on brainless dance music and go nuts and fuck strangers. That's what people are gonna want to do. They're not gonna wanna be introspective about this terrible period we just went through."
While it would be a stretch to describe 'Asphalt Meadows' as "brainless dance music", it is nonetheless an amped-up, in-your-face iteration of Death Cab's characteristic songwriting that jumps out the speakers. Even the more laid-back 'Pepper' benefits from its acoustic guitar thrumming urgently at the front of the mix, the thwack of the plectrum pairing with the taut percussion.
Unable to write in their usual routine, the five members of the band (completed by long-time colleagues Nick Harmer on bass and Jason McGerr holding down drums, along with recent recruits Dave Depper and Zac Rae contributing guitar and keyboards) kept themselves busy by trying out what Ben describes as "chain-letter style songwriting", with one person posting an initial idea, and the different musicians each taking 24 hours in turn to "add to it or subtract from it until everybody has contributed something to the song."
"It feels like we're building a foundation of the song in a way that we have never, never done before, and it gives everybody space to find their own place," Ben says of that new way of writing. "We found ourselves with some really wonderful songs that we otherwise wouldn't have had."
Across the record's eleven tracks, the immediate standout is recent single 'Foxglove through the Clearcut', manifesting itself from a 1997 demo that Ben found while rationalising his collection of four-track recordings. If the instrumentals aren't too surprising, Ben's spoken word delivery of the verses is a welcome twist on a familiar formula. "I just found myself not wanting to sing," he explains. "I felt myself wanting to tell some kind of story, and once I was relieved of the duties of writing a melody, it allowed my brain to go to places it never had before writing a song."
"I found myself writing this story that I assumed was about some amorphous faceless character that I could kind of see in my mind's eye, but it was kind of blurry," Ben remembers of writing the song's lyrics, in which he explores an allegory of the disconnect of European settlers from the nature and native population of the Americas and the colonisers' failure to reconcile their impact on 'this great land where we've never belonged'.
"It's kind of a cheesy analogy," he says of working the song out. "But it's like if you watch Empire Strikes Back and Luke goes into the cave to fight who he thinks is Darth Vader, and he knocks the mask off, and it's him. I had that realisation about the song. 'Oh no, I'm writing about myself. I'm writing about myself from a distance'. That realisation was something that I've never really had in a song before."
"I've never found myself writing something that personal but not realising it," he admits. "I could expound forever about the lyrics on that, but the reality is I found myself psychoanalysing a lot of my choices in life and how I've ended up where I am by removing the first person."
With two runs of US shows now under their belt and the new album out in the world, Death Cab For Cutie can look ahead to a solid year on tour, acquainting their eager fans with the new material. "You know, I think at some point deep in the lockdown, Nick and I were having a conversation, and one of us said to the other, 'I'm never gonna complain about a sparsely attended Sunday show in a small city somewhere ever again.'"
"We certainly have a newfound appreciation for how fortunate we are to be able to do this in the first place, let alone be doing it after 25 years, playing to relatively large crowds still. After having our livelihoods taken from us and, more importantly, the thing that we love to do, it's just such a joyous thing to play music for people," Ben admits. "It wasn't lost on us, and I got the sense from a lot of people coming to shows that they were on the other side of that coin after being at home and not being able to see live music, see the bands and performers that they loved. Every show has felt like a really cathartic release."
Death Cab are lucky enough to enjoy a devoted fanbase with their own favourite tracks, nine beloved albums to draw from and 'Asphalt Meadows' arriving to swell their already overflowing catalogue of spine-tingling songs. The most challenging thing will probably be cutting the setlist down to twenty songs. Still, a quarter century into making music together, that's a nice problem to have.
Taken from the October issue of Upset. Death Cab For Cutie's album 'Asphalt Meadows' is out 16th September.
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