Death Cab for Cutie
The Photo Album (limited edition)
At first listen, The Photo Album fails to match the seductive schoolboy charm of Death Cab for Cutie’s previous and critically acclaimed release, We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes (2000). This shortcoming doesn’t fit the description of a sophomore slump, as The Photo Album is actually the third full-length from the Seattle-based foursome. Instead, it’s the sort of departure that comes when a band, somewhat pleased with the success and sound of its last album, decides that the time has come to create more elaborate compositions and effect a shift in identity. You might call it a coming of age.
Maturity, however, doesn’t always mesh well with this disaffection and aching nostalgia for the summer before last. While Death Cab for Cutie has always remained a precocious figure among the Seattle music scene in spite of its relative youth, a fundamental part of the band’s persona is a frustration that comes with the inability to accept life as it happens, which is also a hallmark of adolescent discomfort. The Photo Album, as the title suggests, presents a series of bittersweet snapshots that tackle this issue directly. Does the songs’ greater complexity undermine the painful clash of innocence and experience?
Well, yes and no. Usually the last refuge of the unoriginal, the monotony of lyrical repetition rears its ugly head, viz. frontman Ben Gibbard asserting, “I love[d] you, Guenivere” until dizzy with fatigue on “We Laugh Indoors.” But perhaps he is his own best critic: “The repetition starts to thin their meaning,” he sings later in “Debate Exposes Doubt.”
Overlooking this quibble, the lyrics are better crafted and refined than earlier material. Rendered in Gibbard’s uncertain and at times audibly (and endearingly) strained voice, they retain a familiar emotional impact. The music is more coherent, too. For better or worse, it is no longer the pure alterna-pop that won the band its esteem in indie circles. In fact the only song that could fall among the earlier recordings is, not surprisingly, what looks like the first single, “I Was a Kaleidoscope.” The half-drugged, half-distressed piano that dances over the chorus of “Information Travels Faster” shows where the growing pains have subtly altered the music.
There are stumbling points. The meandering travelogue of “Why You’d Want to Live Here” is a good example. Ironically, it gives no answer to its title and no musical or lyrical reason why you should even care. “Styrofoam Plates” is an intense story of betrayal and abandonment by a “donor of seeds;” it illustrates why deeply personal resentments need to be handled with a bit of finesse. Otherwise they comes off as angry, awkward, and juvenile — something I thought Death Cab for Cutie was trying to avoid with this album.
The artificial-sounding percussion in the last two tracks, “Coney Island” and the aforementioned “Debate Exposes Doubt,” tends to highlight the skill of drummer Michael Schorr. His meticulous style becomes noticeable, even essential, in the development of the songs on subsequent spins. And while kudos are being handed out, it should be noted that guitarist Chris Walla receives sole credit for producing and mixing the album, a remarkable feat when one considers that in both cases the result is excellent without drawing attention to itself.
The limited edition reviewed here is packaged in a single case that includes a three-song EP: “20th Century Towers,” “All is Full of Love,” a rather good Björk cover, and “Stability.” All three expose a soberer, much more melancholy side to Death Cab for Cutie and are a worthwhile, if not particularly crucial, supplement to the album. As of this writing, the limited edition is no longer available from the Barsuk Records Web site, but it will be sold at live shows while Death Cab for Cutie is on tour.
Generally speaking, The Photo Album is proof that Death Cab for Cutie has drifted in a more serious direction and is able to maintain its poignancy and credibility in that new arena. But until I see a definite reason why this move took place, I’m not convinced of its necessity.