Helen Presents a creative nonfiction piece from Kayla Heisler
Death Cab for Cutie — the name makes the band seem like the members may be prone to wear eyeliner and smash things. But that image couldn’t be further from reality. The Washington-sprung band chose their moniker from a song title by British psychedelic-pop group The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Though their sound has evolved from the despondent, stripped-down tracks on their 1998 debut Something About Airplanes, the group has held onto a soft, indie rock feel for most of their career. Their look is actually very ‘Portland.’ Front man Ben Gibbard and drummer Jason McGerr sport over-sized glasses. Bass player Nick Harmer has a scruffy beard. And all three men rock shaggy haircuts, earth tones, worn tees, and faded plaid. They look like a group of guys who spend their days hanging out at the local coffee shop.
I first encountered Death Cab’s music in middle school, but eighth-grade me was too hung up on the pop-punk scene (think Fall Out Boy, All Time Low, Panic! At the Disco) to appreciate the band’s comparatively mellow sound. I got reacquainted with Death Cab my junior year of high school in Mrs. Boyst’s English class. Mrs. Boyst always came up with interesting projects. She didn’t let us down during our study of symbolism. We each chose a song we felt represented us, and I was instantly drawn in by Ethan Anderson’s pick– Death Cab’s “Stay Young, Go Dancing,” the last track on their 2011 album, Codes and Keys. When he hit the play button on Mrs. Boyst’s computer, a cheerful acoustic guitar melody glided from the speakers. The opening lyrics flowed: “Life is sweet in the belly of the beast, and with her song in your heart, it can never bring you down.” Then a violin and sunny piano joined in. It sounded like happiness. I was enamored and immediately sought out more of their music.
Front man Gibbard writes lyrics so raw and lovely that Stereogum festooned him with the title ‘Poet Warrior.’ His haunting vocals, reminiscent of the Bee Gees, prevent the songs from sounding cloying, even on the band’s most upbeat tracks. They churn with guitar, bass, piano, and percussive instruments brewing the soothing melodic equivalent of a warm beverage.
While anticipating Death Cab’s 8th studio album Kintsugi, to be released later this year, I’ve familiarized myself again with their past work. The album that best exemplifies their lyrical and musical brilliance is the 2005 gem Plans. Drummer Jason McGerr described it as being the exhale to the 2003 Transatlanticism’s inhale. Throughout it, they seamlessly marry the raw sounds of acoustic guitar and piano to light doses of electronic keyboard beats that entrance the listener. I’m drawn to lyrics that evoke an emotional response; I don’t just want to listen, I want to feel. And certain tracks fuse the words and instruments in a way that is so emotive, it’s bewitching.
“Soul Meets Body,” the album’s second track, begins with the steady jangling of a tambourine, joined by the upbeat strumming of acoustic guitar, layered over ambient keyboard sounds. The music transports you to a forest in autumn where you spin, arms open, and a shower of leaves rain down and melt into each other.
“In my head there’s a Greyhound station where I send my thoughts to far off destinations, where they may have a chance of finding a place where they’re far more suited than here.” The lyrics capture the creative life – the overwhelming desire to reign in jumbled thoughts, craft them, and send them out into the world.
The theme of love and loss holds throughout the album: “If the silence takes you, then I hope it takes me too.” Gibbard delivers the words in a tone more matter-of-fact than swooning or sappy. The song fades with the ethereal words, “You’re the only song I want to hear, a melody softly soaring through my atmosphere.”
Like 2003 Transatlanticism’s “Tiny Vessels,” the track “Someday You Will Be Loved” is written from the perspective of a heartbreaker. Yet it’s surprisingly uplifting, beginning with a disoriented, static sound, then clarifying into one of the most bass-heavy beats on the album, fabricating a sleepiness. You can’t help but sway as you listen.
Without coming off as cruel, the track explores the recounting of a past relationship without animosity or longing: “I cannot pretend that I felt any regret because each broken heart will eventually mend.”
Gibbard croons, “You’ll be loved like you never have known, and the memories of me will seem more like bad dreams; just a series of blurs like I never occurred,” mildly admonishing the subject, and listeners, not to dwell on their romantic failures.
The breakup theme continues with “Crooked Teeth.” Brash electric guitar opens the song and triggers a steady snare drum that establishes a composed beat with the chorus. The rhythm mimics the footsteps of a person walking down a sidewalk. And in the chorus, that composure shatters into a jam-session crescendo where all of the instruments mingle. The buoyant instrumentals eerily contrast with the somber lyrics: “I built you a home in my heart with rotten wood; it decayed from the start.”
Gibbard uses the visual imagery of willow trees, kids strung out on homemade speed, and shuttered – recounted in an accepting falsetto. His talent for crafting the visceral abstract into concrete pictures shines strongly:“At night, the sun in retreat made the skyline look like crooked teeth in the mouth of a man who was devouring us both.” The landscape he constructs personifies his melancholy and imbues listeners with the same feeling.
The most heart-wrenching song on the album, without contest, is the sadness-shrouded ballad “What Sarah Said.” A steady blend of snare drum, bass guitar, cymbals, and hopeful-sounding piano blend together in a dreamy haze. The heartbeat rhythm of the drum structures the song, but the piano weaving throughout infuses it with longing. The album’s name, Plans, is taken from the opening line: “It came to me then that every plan is a tiny prayer to father time.” A man waiting in a hospital while the love of his life fades away attempts to come to terms with the inevitable loss of that life: “It stung like a violent wind that our memories depend on a faulty camera in our minds, but I knew that you were a truth I would rather lose than to have never lain beside at all.” Leaving generic love song conventions by the wayside, this track examines the depth of true love by juxtaposing it with the inherent ugliness of losing another person.
Listening to Death Cab transports me to another place not part of our universe – another galaxy entirely. Countless pieces of writing have been born during late night walks around the city with this album flowing through my ears. The unapologetic honesty and unique perspective found in Gibbard’s lyrics challenge me to write with the same passion and sincerity. Thank you, Mrs. Boyst, for that offbeat project years ago that launched the strongest creative influences into my life. I anxiously await wading further into the fountain of wonder on Kintsugi.
Kayla Heisler is a student pursuing a Bachelor’s degree at Eugene Lang College in New York City. Her work appears in Eleven-and-a-Half Literary Magazine and on her blog thinkingthenspeaking.blogspot.com.