12 July, 2008

Rethinking my position on Death Cab For Cutie

I was never very thrilled with DCFC when they were making music that kept popping up on the O.C., and the video for "I Will Follow You Into The Dark" just succeeded in creeping me out. In fact, while many of my friends were hearting Ben Gibbard for songs like "The Sound of Settling" and "Crooked Teeth", I was finding myself enamored with his cool and collected turns with The Postal Service (I still think that "Such Great Heights" has some of the most beautiful lyrics ever written). Still, I'm rethinking a lot of my feelings and preconceived notions lately, grasping for the decisions and conclusions that make me the person I want to be. I certainly don't want to be the kind of person who writes off an entire band for one unlucky turn on a horrible television show, so I'm taking the time to listen to Death Cab For Cutie's latest album, Narrow Stairs.

However hard I try I can't get past the feeling that "I Will Possess Your Heart" is a totally creepy-stalker song. Just the choice of words in the very title makes me cringe. Hearts are NOT possessions! Still, the cranking bass intro reminds me of the Temptations, and then drums shuffle into place and the guitars buzz in the background, while the piano moves into position. It's all very calculated, and there's something beautiful about the way it's written so carefully, and seemingly with one particular person in mind. Based on some conversations I've had recently, I'm starting to get this feeling that all of us fall into that creepy-stalker role once in awhile, and maybe Ben Gibbard just decided it was time to go public with his obsession. When the vocals move into the picture, everything else fades into the background, and Gibbard never sounds like a real creep just like a boy who has jumped into love with both feet. At eight minutes long, the song never feels boring or like it's carrying on after it should have ended. In fact, everything feels perfectly proportioned for a single.

"Bixby Canyon Bridge" reminds me of Something Corporate's songs of uncertainty and longing. Who doesn't hope for a trace of something good that has long-since disappeared? The smell of Summer in the Winter time, or that feeling you got the first time you listened to your favorite album, or the first time you fell in love. That's what this song is about. It's about that place between decisions, where all you really want is to feel that way about something again, because then you'd have a clear answer as to which path you should follow. Gut feelings are sometimes the hardest thing for a rational mind to recognize, but they're also some of the most important things for anyone to recognize. I think this song is about searching for that balance between practicality and happiness, and wishing all along that you could just feel those butterflies in your stomach and know that things could still be vibrant; that feelings could still be strong; that apathy hadn't left everything hazy and unclear forever.

"No Sunlight" comes from a similar place, full of strong longing for the optimism and certainty of youth. I'm starting to see a theme on this album: dissatisfaction with growing up and a growing craving for a cause (possibly love) that will make you feel optimistic and idealistic once more. It's a theme I can definitely understand, and one that makes the album feel comfortable to my ears. Gibbard is singing some of the feelings and ideas that go whirling around my head.

"Cath..." discusses the big decision making that seems too often to follow adult uncertainty. It's all about "Cath" who got married because "her heart was dying fast", and it's actually a really sad song. I think it's important though, because these things happen all too often. There are people who have a hard time making any decisions at all because they can't feel strongly about one path, and then there are also people who decide without really thinking about their other options because they're trying to hold onto a feeling that probably won't last.

Possession seems to be another major theme on Narrow Stairs, and one that's continued on the song "Talking Bird". One of the biggest adult lessons you ever learn is that you don't/can't own other people. However much you love someone, you can never really possess them. Part of loving that person is realizing that you want them to be happy even if they need to be happy far away from you. It's much more difficult than it sounds. You have to give up some control, and learn to trust them to love you in return, and this is what "Talking Bird" is about. Deep, I know.

"You Can Do Better Than Me" is kind of a scary song in some ways. It's definitely not your stereotypical love song, because it's a song about doubts. He's tired of the person he's with (sometimes), but he's realizing that there might not ever be anyone better in his life. It's a neurotic thought, and it's set to pop music that reminds me of the Beatles. At the same time, there's something kind of sweet about the sentiment. I think everyone wonders about their choices, until they remember that the person they're with is really amazing and that they're lucky to be loved by them.

"Grapevine Fires" has macabre but brilliant imagery painted with Gibbard's soft "accountant" vocals (he reminds me of an accountant, although the long hair has made him a little softer around the edges). It's somewhat unnerving to hear him coo lines about watching the fires burn things away, but at the same time it's comforting to think of a child dancing in a cemetery (I've never thought that happiness around death was disrespectful. Happiness regarding death is completely different from happiness and the celebration of life happening near death). Then there are the final lines:

The firemen worked in double shifts,
With prayers for rain on their lips
And they knew it was only a matter of time.

I think it's important to accept that things will happen in their own time, and these last lines sum up this idea for me.

"Your New Twin Sized Bed" is full of wonderful metaphors. In the song queen-sized beds are traded in for twins, and old boys are traded in for those who might be more likely to commit. But what do you lose in the process? Well, possibilities for one thing, and patience, and hope, and idealism. They are all sacrificed for an idea of what might make you happy at some point in the future.

"Long Division" is almost stream of consciousness, but the overwhelming thought is that people don't want to be the "remainder" of their past. They're burning their bridges and their memories so fast because they don't want to be left behind in the dust and ash of their youth. It reminds me of Garden State, as does the whole album really. It's bridging that space between youth and adulthood, with all of the uncertainty and awkwardness that is so unbearably human.

"Pity and Fear" has strong Asian musical influences (Ravi Shankar anyone?), and the lyrics are even a little zen, although they're introspective and self-centered in a way that is very Western. About a minute before the end of the song, there's a rock and roll guitar solo that is very out of character for Death Cab for Cutie. It's almost messy, but it perfectly matches the conjured lyrical images. It's the kind of song that says "I've fucked up everything" in a way that's a bit less profane.

The ultimate manifestation of every major theme on Narrow Stairs is "The Ice Is Getting Thinner", which finishes the album. It's half mourning-song, and half song of adult resignation. There's no weeping or dramatic pronouncements, just a recognition that things won't be the same again and that some things are finished (including the album). It's not a particularly happy note on which to end, but it seems appropriate given the tone of the rest of the album. There are no easy fixes anymore, and sometimes you just have to bandage your wounds, make a hard decision, let the people you love be, and move forward with your life.

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