Friday, February 16, 2007

As the girls with pigtails were running from little boys wearing bowties their parents bought them

#6 Death Cab for Cutie, We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes (Barsuk, 2000)

Believe me, Julia and I viewed the scene in 2005 when we saw this band play Cameron Indoor Stadium (yes, really). We saw the braces and pimples. We saw the rapt crowd loft their open cell phones in the air and sing along to “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” So I am fully aware that the teenagers love their new pop heroes, Death Cab for Cutie. And that makes it odd, though no less true, to say that when We Have The Facts came out, it sounded improbably avant-garde to me. The reasonably opaque lyrics and inscrutable song titles that never actually appeared in the lyrics, the saturation of reverb, and the (what seemed to me to be) the glacial pace of half of the songs on the record – all of these things can probably be attributed to my musical naiveté, but I don’t think I was completely off-base. This album, I think above all their others, is the one that best stakes out a sound unique to this band. And it is the album that has, more than any other one in my top 25, created a fanboy. Before the Cameron show, I think I saw them play 5 or 6 times (R.I.P. Go! Studios in Carrboro, NC). Also, I will always hold a special place in my heart for the band that wrote the only song I know of that's (maybe) about being/loving a science grad student (“Scientist Studies”).

I can’t begrudge them their success at all – I think it’s well earned, and my opinion is that if teenagers are going to listen to something, let it be DCFC rather than something much worse. There is something sad, though, about seeing times change. I wore my DCFC t-shirt today as a sort of act of reclamation, but I have to admit I felt a little sheepish doing so. This isn’t meant to be an elegy – all of DCFC’s albums (and especially We Have the Facts) are in my more-or-less regular rotation, and upon re-evaluation, Plans, while still their weakest album, is much better than I gave it credit at first.

Finally, because there’s always time for a nutty idea, here’s my theory about DCFC’s career trajectory: On their next record, The Photo Album, Ben Gibbard sings this line, “and now we all know that the words were true in the sappiest songs.” This line, in 2001, was a brilliant insight.* It was a manifesto for trading in tired out 90s slacker irony for sincerity, and DCFC went about trying to enact this idea. But, when the results came out (a.k.a. Plans), old fans like me realized that maybe we kinda liked the irony more than we thought. On Plans, the songs are sincere, straightforward, heartfelt, and, well, a little too boring and sappy (or perhaps not the right kind of sappy – songs about summer flings and affected adolescent suicide pacts probably require some distance, but the best song on Plans “What Sarah Said” is effective because it is a sincere, blunt song about death, with a coda that repeats the line “So who’s gonna watch you die?” I think one must have a mind of winter not to think of misery while listening to this song).

*As the year 2001 suggests, I think there is also a political undertone here. Desire for the end of irony and for sincerity and trust was all well and good before our nation had lived through six years where we have been repeatedly told that 2+2=5 (or maybe better 2+2=tens of thousands of dead). A lot of things could be said here, but on a music blog let me keep it to: F*ck B*sh for taking away sincerity and for taking away my Death Cab.

1 comment:

Big Cougar said...

Sincereity defintiely fell by the wayside post 9/11, but I definitely think from Transatlanticism on, Gibbard's lyrics and themes got less esoteric and much more emo-friendly. The great fun of We Have the Facts and much of Photo Album is trying to contextualize his stories. The last two records have been pretty straight forward, both musically and lyrically, and I think that's why the critical audience has maybe dropped them a bit. That and the pimples and braces crowd. But hell, I listened to Plans a lot, so, as you say, earnestness doesn't have to be the death knell of a band, even after "Mission Accomplished."