An Essential Guide to Death Cab for Cutie

An Essential Guide to Death Cab for Cutie

Transitional Period (2003 to 2005):

The shortest and, to my mind, most interesting period in Death Cab's career is what we'll call the Transitional Period, which the band underwent between the recording and release of Transatlanticism in 2003 and the release of 2005's Plans on major label Atlantic Records in 2005.
Both records identified central themes — distance on Transatlanticism and death on Plans — in ways they hadn't on earlier records, and found the band stretching out and exploring prettier, more elegant compositions that incorporated piano and a less hurried use of time and space.
Neither of the band's two most critically acclaimed records sit comfortably in either the Indie Label Period (1997 to 2002) or their Major Label Period (2006 to 2014); Transatlanticism and Plans are too grandly arranged and universal to compare to We Have the Facts or The Photo Album, but they're also too intimate, too focused on the minutiae of those universal themes, and too softly sung in Gibbard's mellifluous head voice, to be categorized next to their later major label releases like 2008's Narrow Stairs or 2011's Codes and Keys.

Essential Album: Transatlanticism (2003)

The band's exploration of distance on their breakout album makes Transatlanticism feel universal, but Gibbard's up-close focus on details like the nomenclature for his car's glove compartment ("Title and Registration"), the strong scent of evergreen ("Passenger Seat") or the back of his grey sub-compact ("We Looked Like Giants") negates that broadness and puts the album in a category all its own.

Death Cab take huge artistic leaps forward here — "We Looked Like Giants" and "The New Year" are epics that would have stuck out like sore thumbs on The Photo Album but work perfectly here — but they also mine their quieter, shuffling past for more delicate beauty on "Lightness" and "Tiny Vessels," the latter of which climaxes with the kind of thrashing that recalls We Have the Facts' loudest moments. At the centre of it all is the monolithic title track, eight minutes of meditative grandeur that the band would never quite achieve again.

This is Death Cab for Cutie's finest moment, the album for which this masterpiece was mere practice. (Indeed, Ben Gibbard has said in interviews that whenever he was stuck on a Transatlanticism song, he'd write a song for Give Up, which he found much easier to do, to get his creative juices flowing and get over writer's block.)

What to Avoid:
All heavy-handed metaphors ("Your Heart Is an Empty Room," anyone?) and themes, on Plans, it felt as though the band were struggling to create a sound that would suit their new major label status. This is the favourite of many a Death Cab fan, but it's aged poorly, and the album's lead single, "Soul Meets Body," remains the cheesiest song in Death Cab's catalogue. That being said, the album's "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" and "What Sarah Said" remain timeless.
Further Listening:
For a taste of Death Cab's stellar live show, check out their 2005 John Byrd EP. Then, delve into the obscure Studio X Sessions EP, in which the band turn early songs like "Army Corps of Architects" and "Blacking Out the Friction" into gorgeous, piano-based masterworks.
The demo versions of Transatlanticism's songs included on the album's 10th anniversary reissue are worth a listen, especially the a cappella, beat-box version of "Lightness."

Finally, Ben Gibbard had a pretty famous side-project that you might've heard of from this time.

Click to Page 3 below for Death Cab for Cutie's Major Label Period (2006 to current).