Seth Cohen Was Right
Death Cab for Cutie Shines on Plans

We start with a shout-out this week.

Mike Lachance has long been my most famous friend, having worked with DreamWorks Animation on the concepts and stories for Shrek 2 and Shark Tale, among other projects. But on October 7, Mike makes the jump from behind-the-scenes guru to name-in-the-credits artist. If you go see the Wallace and Gromit movie, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, you’ll be treated to a 10-minute short starring the super-spy penguins from Madagascar, written by Mike.

This is a big deal – Mike recently left the security of his job at DreamWorks to ply his trade as a freelance writer, and this is his first nationally released work. I’m also quite glad that the short is premiering in front of a movie I wanted to see anyway, since I’d have hated to spend $9 to go see a 10-minute mini-movie and leave before the feature, but I’d have done it anyway. The Wallace and Gromit movie is going to be really good, and I get the added bonus of seeing Mike’s name in three-foot-high letters.

Anyway, he spells it out in his always-entertaining blog. (Scroll past the Lord of War review.) Just wanted to spread the word, and say congrats.

* * * * *

I am not a trendy person.

Ask anyone who knows me. I have had the same basic fashion sense (meaning none) since grade school. My hairstyle rarely changes, and hasn’t since high school, not because I like what I have, but because I am too indifferent to do anything else with it. It took me until last December to jump on the cell phone bandwagon, after it became horribly apparent that I would not be considered a responsible adult without one. I couldn’t care less about the latest cars, video games, video games about cars, or cars with built-in video game consoles.

Still, the part of my brain that’s reserved for full-time music criticism is constantly worried about trends, and about not appearing tied to them. I don’t know why that is, exactly. I respond negatively to tidal waves of hype, and often I don’t even care about a new band until their third album, after the overwhelming buzz has died down. (Or, as in Coldplay’s case, not.) For example, I’m coming around on Franz Ferdinand, but I found the legions of fans and critics prostrating themselves before this semi-interesting party-rock band kind of puzzling, and all sorts of irritating.

So I try not to get caught up in it. I let the whole ‘80s new wave revival movement pass me by – I care not at all about the Killers, the Bravery, or any of their ilk until they can show me that they’re worth my time. And I do tend to lump all the riders on a certain bandwagon together, though I know I shouldn’t – the Hives, the Vines, the White Stripes and the Strokes will always be parts of the same garage-rock mess to me, and it takes some effort to separate each one out and consider them as individual bands, as I did with the Stripes recently.

But isn’t disregarding trends, in and of itself, a trend? It’s at least a pattern of behavior, which makes me suspicious. Do I really dislike the Killers, or just the wave they rode in on? These are the questions that keep me up at night, examining and re-examining my motives and prejudices. It’s somehow worse when I really like something that legions of others have embraced, especially if it seems like the next big thing. As much as I don’t want to disregard trends out of hand, I also don’t want to jump aboard them if I don’t really believe in the music.

At a certain point, though, you have to say the hell with it, and like what you like. This week’s review subject is a good case in point – it’s Death Cab for Cutie’s new one, Plans. After a couple of listens, it just doesn’t matter at all that Death Cab is Seth Cohen’s favorite band on The O.C., or that every cultural prognosticator with an internet connection is calling them the voice of the Garden State generation. The trappings of scene and society don’t mean a thing, the music does, and the music on this record is absolutely marvelous.

Plans is Death Cab’s fourth album, and their first for a major label, as if the too-cool-for-school types needed another reason to hate it. It comes on the heels of not just the band’s most acclaimed album, Transatlanticism, but of the astounding success of singer Ben Gibbard’s side project, the Postal Service. Even if you think you haven’t heard a Postal Service song, you probably have – their tunes have been used in commercials and as television themes. If Death Cab wanted to play it safe, they could have made an album full of electronic overtones and trippy beats, like the Postal Service record. Or, they could have cloned Transatlanticism, with its peals of feedback and flowing peaks and valleys.

They didn’t do either one. Plans is, on first listen, a subdued, underwhelming affair, full of slow songs and pianos. In an age of ever-expanding epics and ambition, it clocks in at a modest 44:19. Their contract with Atlantic Records allowed them full control, and they retained their own guitarist, Chris Walla, as producer. This is exactly the album they wanted to make, and they used their major-label money to produce something tiny and intimate. If they are the new R.E.M., as many have said, then Plans is their Automatic for the People.

Over time, Plans reveals itself as a breathtakingly emotional song cycle about death and disconnection, but it’s wide-eyed and hopeful, earnest and beautiful. Plans is about taking moments, about overcoming the oceans that divide us, and about the sad wonder of losing everything. Its small scope is perfect for the infinitesimal snapshots it captures. There is nothing detached about it – Gibbard and company have written an album about connecting people that strives, every second, to connect with the listener.

I have liked Death Cab before, but none of their other albums does it for me like this one does. Gibbard opens himself here like he never has – a lot of attention is paid to his high, unmistakable voice, but he is a superb lyricist, and he tackles big themes here with specific sketches. One of the record’s standouts is “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” performed by Gibbard and his acoustic and nothing else. It is the most devastating love song I have heard in years, and it encapsulates the theme of the album: “Should heaven and hell decide that they both are satisfied, illuminate the ‘no’s on their vacancy signs, if there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks, then I will follow you into the dark…”

Plans develops that theme with songs about loneliness and isolation. “Different Names for the Same Thing” catches up with a man on a train, riding somewhere but not caring where he ends up, and the song ironically maps a journey from plaintive piano to swirling winds of guitar. “Your Heart is an Empty Room” pirouettes on the line, “Out on the street are so many possibilities to not be alone,” a theme that continues into “Someday You Will Be Loved,” with its martial rhythm and terrific bass line.

But the heart of the album lies in its final third. The glorious “What Sarah Said” is an epic in miniature, rising and falling with emotion as it details the thoughts of a terminal patient. “Every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time,” Gibbard sings, and later he brings the twin themes of death and disconnection together: “Each descending peak on the LCD took you a little farther away from me.” It is the thudding reality that counterpoints the fantastical promise in “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” its protagonist wondering aloud, “Who’s going to watch you die?” I read that as a selfish sentiment mis-stated the first time, as if he meant to say, “Who’s going to watch me die,” but it clicked on repeat listens that he’s expressing his love: When I’m gone, who will watch you die, like you’re watching me right now?

“Brothers on a Hotel Bed” imagines old age, in contrast, its simple piano figure supporting a song about old lovers who have grown apart. Life is fleeting, time is the enemy, and its very ephemeral nature increases our need to connect with those around us, lest we live endless lives, aching to be loved even by those closest to us. It’s an amazing song anyway, but after “What Sarah Said,” it’s surprisingly powerful. The album concludes with “Stable Song,” an ode to choosing life, to overcoming: “The gift of memory is an awful curse, with age it just gets much worse, but I don’t mind…” Gibbard all but pleads, “Give us our measly sum,” and it recalls all the measly sums he has described on Plans, and how they’re all worth it.

This album, I can tell, is going to be like Duncan Sheik’s Phantom Moon, from four years ago. I love it, more than I expected to, but I won’t be able to explain it or convey that love to others. Many will hear a simple little collection of ditties, a disappointing major label debut, a trendy emo-pop grab at a demographic. I can’t worry about that. I adore this record – in a year already crowded with favorites, it has captured a piece of me, struck a chord deep within me. It’s an album to grow old with, one that will have even deeper resonance 40 years from now, when I will likely have lived at least one of the lives described in its lyrics. There are so many possibilities to not be alone.

* * * * *

That’s all I have time for this week. I’m still drowning in work, which is an unqualified good thing, but it leaves me with little listening and writing time. I wanted to get to Rob Dickinson and Sigur Ros this week as well, but alas…

Next week, there are 12 or so new records I could possibly review. Who knows what I’ll do?

See you in line Tuesday morning.