Band: Death Cab For Cutie
Album: We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Well, Death Cab isn't a band that everyone knows, so I guess this album shouldn't be here. I imagine it's just a personal love of mine.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: "We Have The Facts" is a wondrous romp through what appears to be an on-again/off-again relationship of hipsters in Seattle. Emotionally charged, the barbs fly ("For What Reason") while bitterness remains until the end of the album("Scientist Studies"). Musically, the perfect combination of emo-style vocal whining, angular Northwest guitars and four-piece production gives the lyrics more resonance.
Best song: "For What Reason" is vitriolic on a wonderful level; The song's opening lines give fuel for dumped boyfriends for ages: "This won't be the last you'll hear from me: it's just the start."
Worst song: There's no really bad song on here. It's a wonderful record.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.
"I don't think I ever noticed."
I was standing with a tape recorder in my hand, about a foot away from Death Cab for Cutie guitarist and producer Chris Walla. Nervous, I'd just asked Walla what he thought of lead singer Ben Gibbard's dance moves. To me, a 21-year-old who was seeing the band a second time, Gibbard's strange foot motions were notable. To Walla -- a lanky cross between Prince Valiant and Spike Jonze -- this was just the way the show went.
I've never been a good interviewer -- my favorite interview I've ever conducted was with Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch and was almost entirely about basketball -- but this particular event with Walla was exceptionally awkward. I stopped being a real college radio person and turned into simply a fanboy, staring a member of one of my favorite bands down.
This was March 2002. I'm not sure I'd act any different six years later.
Despite growing up in the north suburbs of Chicago, my parents raised me a White Sox fan. Being a sports fan in general torments me -- it's a generally stupid group -- but being a White Sox fan torments me in particular. The Sox' fanbase is a lower class than many baseball fanbases, drawing from the group of fools who rush the umpire and try to beat up a coach. It's a group that includes the main guy from Styx. It's a group that asks questions about stolen bases of Mark Gonzales.
It's not a club I'm proud to belong.
Simlarly, I love Death Cab for Cutie. The aforementioned 2002 show was attended mostly by female Rock Bridge and Hickman High School students, with a smattering of University of Missouri people, mostly affected skinny men or squealing women. It's probably sexist, it's certainly stupid, but this annoyed me.
This fanbase, of course, connects to the band and the band's frontman. Gibbard, chief songwriter and lead singer, crafts music of a mostly adolescent nature. I don't know another way to describe it. Songs like "Photobooth" -- an indie rock update of "Summer Nights" -- tells the tale of teenage love, while Gibbard's voice falls between matter-of-fact snark and the whispery tenderness of a brooding sophomore. It's brilliant in its potential to draw both men and women into the mix. Drawing on relationship experience, the songs have an overly emotional feel, though it is one that we've felt. It's sensitive, but grave enough to have heft.
Gibbard's writing defines this. His lovelorn and simple lyrics hardly have the tone of McCartney, Lennon or fellow Washingtonian Cobain but rather read like overwrought prose, albeit pleasant and relatable overwrought prose. Side project The Postal Service was a an exercise in such lyrics (Sample 1: "I want so badly to believe that there is truth and love is real." Sample 2: "I am thinking it's a sign. That the freckles in our eyes. Are mirror images and when we kiss they're perfectly aligned.") and his Death Cab work -- while more nuanced -- relies on similar emotive responses.
This is both Gibbard's blessing and curse. Death Cab is an anomaly in the current irony-centric indie rock climate due largely to Gibbard's huge sincerity. Death Cab's music isn't like Pavement's; love is good, songs about girls are encouraged and Gibbard's breakups make for great song fodder. You'll find very few non-sequitors in Gibbard's songwriting and words aren't chosen solely because they fit rhythmically.
Of course, it's not the sincerity that makes Death Cab stand out. It's the quality of said sincerity. "Photobooth" is both ridiculous and wonderful at once. It reflects a reality none of us have ever known but have yearned for, the reality of emotional fuck buddies within a three-month constraint. "Send Packing" -- a song from Gibbard's pre-Death Cab solo album All Time Quarterback -- is among the greatest breakup songs ever written. "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" is a brilliant breakup album. The band's first record is full of fun metaphors and dancing guitar pieces.
But, it's also the sincerity that opens the band up for criticism. In an indie rock world that celebrates the obtuse non-sequitir (Malkmus), the overly dark (Jason Molina), the overly political (Sleater-Kinney), the genre quirky (Devendrea Barnhart, Will Oldham) and the ironic (The Go! Team, etc.), a sincere angular guitar rock band doesn't always have a place. Torquil Campbell summed it up well in an AV Club interview a while back:
God bless Animal Collective, but they really have, in their own strange way, made indie rock a much more conservative place than it should be. If you can create intellectual distance from your work, then critics will feel clever for getting it and give you good marks; if you create music that fucked-up 13-year-old girls might enjoy, then critics will feel like you're trying too hard and not give you good marks.
Death Cab doesn't get the criticism within the blog/Web community that Stars does -- Death Cab is a better band, after all. But, I've heard it many times from pretentious friends and I understand why. I often feel a little ashamed that I am a Death Cab fanboy. And I don't mean sorta fanboy. I mean I have every single thing the band has ever released, including the extremely rare split 7" with Fiver, the "Wait/Prove My Hypothesis" 7", the original "You Can Play These Songs with Chords" cassette and the limited edition "John Byrd" EP. I prefer to listen to music that's above the fray, instrumental post-rock like Mogwai and Tortoise. But, being a melodramatic asshole, Gibbard's songwriting hits my buttons. At my heart, I'm still a 16-year-old getting dumped, wanting to know why. Wanting some answers.
Simpsons creator Matt Groening has a theory that anything serial is looked at by fans as being constantly deteriorating from the point which that specific fan first encountered the particular thing. He uses "The Simpsons" as the example, in that the first generation viewers of the show -- myself included -- found the third, fourth and fifth seasons to be the best. Whatever you first saw is what you will love the best.
Another Simpsons writer (I'm blanking on whom) mentions on the same DVD commentary that something serial will have to change things soon enough, because everything else has been done. For example, charges of Homer being too stupid were levied at the show as early as season six, mostly because the writers needed to continue to push some sort of envelope. This is how "22 Short Films About Springfield" was made, as well. Someone had to do something to break new ground and find new humor.
This isn't to say that later work isn't good. It almost always is. But, it's tough to grow with a band or a TV show. Someone who first knew "The Simpsons" via the 15th season is going to have a completely different view of the show than I. That's just life.
A lot of people have gotten into Death Cab via "Plans" or their latest, "Narrow Stairs." I like "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes."
One notable thing about Death Cab's success is its slow burn. The band's debut album was well-received, though under the radar. "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" was critically acclaimed, but arrived at a time when the Web did not dominate music (and therefore independent music was still not as accessible via iTunes and such). "The Photo Album" and "Transatlanticism" grew the band's popularity, albeit slowly. Eventually, of course, Death Cab signed with Atlantic and "Plans" debuted at Billboard's no. 4 position. "Narrow Stairs," released earlier in May, debuted at no. 1.
So, I don't know if I'd call "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" as the band's breakout. Today's music climate doesn't necessarily make for good breakouts; fellow Pacific Northwesters Modest Mouse's "breakout" was simply when they got a video on MTV. I don't know that Death Cab has ever had a video on MTV, as the channel rarely shows videos anymore.
Like any band that achieves success within its time, Death Cab is a product of said time. The band's best work takes from the other angular guitar music of the time while combining it with the pleading lyric style of the region. Put simply, the best of Death Cab's work sounds most like the lovechild of Modest Mouse and Elliott Smith.
"We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" is the best of Death Cab's work. Writing about the album in 2000, I compared it to my favorite songwriter:
The total irony of this album is that it came out within a month of Elliott Smith's album, "Figure 8." Where "Elliott Smith" SHOULD HAVE gone with "Figure 8," Death Cab for Cutie perfected.
I stand by this. Elliott Smith's brilliance was in his ability to use the rhythms of everyday language in his songwriting. His songs weren't repetitive in word, he never used cliches and the pullout lines were always ones we all use in conversation.
Gibbard often gets a little cute with his lyrics, but "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" has the same conversational quality. My favorite song on the album -- and my favorite of his compositions -- uses this strategy in its opening line. while "This won't be the last you hear from me, it's just the start" isn't epic and sweeping like so many Cobain lyrics, it has a mid-career Dylan quality (this, of course, is without mentioning Gibbard's splendid delivery). The album is full of similar lyrics, slowly sang over Walla's brilliant melodic-meets-mathy guitars. The album's opening track lyrics end on Gibbard repeating "I rushed this. We moved too fast, and tripped into the guestroom."
The album's breakup theme is near universal. Tiny Mix Tapes compared it to Annie Hall and listeners (well, one listener. Me.) extrapolated it to their breakup emotions. The escapism ("What ghosts exist behind these attic walls?") and the forgotten love ("Misguided by the 405 'cause it lead me to an alcoholic summer. I missed the exit to your parents' house hours ago.") all inhabit the album in various places.
While Elliott Smith's great work was able to reconcile breakups with still-in-love infatuation, Gibbard's is more sinister. Like the brilliant "Send Packing" (final lyric: "I've nothing to say that we haven't gone already."), multiple tracks on the album. The record's centerpiece, the dual "Company Calls" tracks, recount a wedding in which the protagonist lambastes the entire experience, culminating in a raucous chorus.
Set your sights destroy this partyline,
'cause it's so tired.
Set your sights! Destroy this mock-shrine,
'cause it's so tired
The same song repeats the album's theme of a resentful breakup, as the narrator recounts the arguing and unhappiness in the brilliant opening lyric:
I'll take the best of your bad moods
and dress them up to make a better you
The second track in the diad, "Company Calls Epilogue" is more sedate. A morning after of sorts, the song is no less unhappy, using the "Title Track" method of delivering somber lyrics over the song's ending while lamenting said wedding. Slow and melodic, the almost-chorus teems with resentment:
Crashing through the parlor doors, what was your first reaction?
Screaming, drunk, disorderly: I'll tell you mine.
You were the one, but I can't spit it out when the date's been set.
The white routine to be ingested inaccurately.
I generalize a fair amount when I write. Part of that is playing the part of a polemicist, part of it is our culture ingrained in me. Part of it is trying to be a relatable writer and mostly, it's much more interesting than the "on one hand, on the other hand" method that often inhabits my head. It's more fun to write "country music sucks" than "country music generally sucks, but artists like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard make interesting and great music. Also, the Meat Puppets take a great deal from country. What is considered alt-country is also great, specifically Uncle Tupelo..."
And so on.
But, this record remains a wonder. Whereas later Death Cab albums fall into the overarching (The band's latest single "I Will Possess Your Heart") or the weirdly dark ("What Sarah Said"), "We Have the Facts" is specific and smart. As a concept album, it's easy to follow, but as a thematic one (slight difference), it's brilliant. It's easy to extrapolate. I first experienced the album during a breakup and personalized it to an outrageous extent. I acted like a child and took to the album as such. It was idiotic, immature and a time I wish I had back.
But, on some level, I'm glad I shared that time with the album, as strange as that sounds. It's not a place I want to revisit, but that was a time when I was able to achieve a depth of emotion I'm not sure I can access as easily anymore. The album makes me remember, on some level, why extreme teenage emotion can be fun.