Death Cab for Cutie Evolve into Themselves on 'Asphalt Meadows'

BY Wesley McLeanPublished Sep 15, 2022

With 25 years and 10 albums under their belt, Death Cab for Cutie are at an interesting point in their career. They're not quite a legacy act just yet, but they're simultaneously not as relevant or popular as they were throughout the early-to-mid aughts.

Their last few records (2011's Codes and Keys, 2015's Kintsugi and 2018's Thank You for Today) saw flourishes of what made their previous efforts so great but largely failed to connect with fans to the degree that their earlier work had. They're all decent projects in their own right, but the band's distinct personality was undeniably lacking on all three outings. It became increasingly clear that the band members were looking to evolve with age, to push their boundaries without losing their identity — unfortunately, the results ultimately felt like a band caught in uncertainty and lacking direction.

With Asphalt Meadows, Gibbard and company have finally stuck the landing. The album feels undeniably Death Cab, while also giving their signature sound a slight facelift. There's a level of maturity on display that clearly distinguishes it from any of their older records, yet it still manages to feel like a direct extension of their core identity. It's an impressive feat, as the band has seemingly moved past the attempts to outgrow their previous work, settling fully into who they've become personally without compromising who they are musically.

As is expected when it comes to Death Cab for Cutie, the writing on this album is, for the most part, phenomenal. Gibbard's ability to balance the tenderness of human emotion with the dense prose of a novelist has always been the band's greatest strength, and it's on full display throughout Asphalt Meadows

On lead single "Roman Candles," Gibbard explores his tendency to desperately cling to the fleeting moments and transient people in his life, feeling stuck as the world passes him by. As the song progresses, he acknowledges that this need to hold on is effectively holding him back and that he needs to learn to let go, as the inevitability of change is inescapable. The song is impeccably written, with even the very first lines standing out as some of the most poignant on the album: "it's been a battle just to wake and greet the day / then they all disappear like sugar in my coffee."

It also showcases another of Death Cab's great strengths beyond the stellar writing — their penchant for pairing the melodically pleasant with the lyrically melancholic. Gibbard has a knack for writing these incredibly catchy, borderline anthemic hooks that one can hum along to before they've even finished their first listen, and having them act as the glue that brings together dense and lyrically rich verses. A prime example of this is "Rand McNally," a song that houses likely the most descriptive and beautiful storytelling on the album, while simultaneously boasting one of its most simple and repetitive hooks. It's a lush and gorgeous track that uses the hook's simplicity to accent the novelistic storytelling of the verses.

It's clear that a majority of Asphalt Meadows' songs were written and recorded during — or were inspired by — the time that Gibbard spent alone during the COVID-19 lockdown, though it doesn't really play like a "lockdown album" in the exhaustingly typical sense. Many of the songs here may closely reflect Gibbard's life at the time, but he plays with those themes in a more overarching and general sense. Similar to how 2004's Transatlanticism saw Gibbard using geographical and physical barriers as metaphors for emotional and personal boundaries, he plays with the idea of isolation literally while also exploring it in a more psychological and existential sense.

With Asphalt Meadows, it's apparent that the band came together following a shared experience with a concise vision for what they wanted to create, and the album is all the better for it. It's the first time in over a decade that Death Cab have felt so undeniably, well, Death Cab. They've managed to create an album that feels fresh while also being the closest they've come to recreating the magic of earlier records. This is a band that has finally found a way to evolve without eliminating what it was that made them so special in the first place. While it may not be on the same level as their highest highs, it's reassuring to see a band get as close as they have to revisiting their peak so late in their career.

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