- The Washington Times - Monday, August 29, 2005

Death Cab for Cutie

Plans

Atlantic Records

Every new generation needs a poet laureate of rock, and if Bright Eyes darling Conor Oberst doesn’t snatch the title, look for Death Cab for Cutie’s principal songwriter, Ben Hibbard, to outflank him.

With “Plans,” the Seattle quartet has jumped from tiny Barsuk Records to a major label without losing any of the qualities — first among them Mr. Hibbard’s perceptive lyrics — that have made DCFC one of the most beloved indie bands in a market glutted with esoteric acts claiming just enough of a following to finance recording projects, food and travel.

The album is crammed with one-liners and couplets that should wow the kids with their profundity. And darn it if some of them aren’t downright poetic. A willow tree “whose tears didn’t care/They just hung in the air and refused to fall”? A twilight skyline that looks like “crooked teeth in the mouth of the man who was devouring us both”? Terrific — and both are found in one song.

The band’s fifth full-length release was recorded at Longview Farms, a legendary studio on a plot of land in the Massachusetts countryside. The theme of remoteness that was so palpable on 2003’s “Transatlanticism” morphed there into a sequence of goodbyes that is, by turns, regretful, pitiless, morbid and bittersweet.

Mr. Hibbard sings each with a childlike sincerity that complements the dreamy, layered soundscapes created by guitarist-organist Christopher Walla, who doubles as the band’s producer.

The first song, “Marching Bands of Manhattan,” opens with a solemn drone of B-3 organ and inspires Mr. Hibbard to imagine himself with superherolike powers over New York landmarks — the better to persuade a wishy-washy love interest to take a chance on someone who “lives like a hermit in my own head.”

On “Soul Meets Body,” the album’s propulsively tuneful first single, Mr. Hibbard compares his special brown-eyed someone to a “melody softly soaring through my atmosphere.”

That’s about where the waves turn from hellos to goodbyes.

“Someday You Will Be Loved” is the most brutal of kiss-offs: “I cannot pretend that I felt any regret/’Cause each broken heart will eventually,” heartbreaker Hibbard sings. The vaguely U2-inspired “Your Heart Is an Empty Room” offers a similar “chin up” message in the wake of some flamed-out romance: “Out on the street are so many possibilities to not be alone.”

The pleasantly melancholic “Summer Skin” (drummer Jason McGerr’s hypnotic shuffle merited a songwriting co-credit) gives up the ghost of a sun-splashed summer romance that apparently fizzled by cruel September and the new school year. Mr. Hibbard’s memory — which he later describes as both a “gift” and “an awful curse” — reveals such intimate details as “On the night you left, I came over/And we peeled the freckles off our shoulders.”

As readily as he conjures up the past, Mr. Hibbard can envisage the future as well, even the ultimate future. In “What Sarah Said,” the album’s grandest epic, Mr. Hibbard’s narrator observes a loved one dying in a hospital. One marvels at his eye for institutional detail, such as the waiting room full of “eyes on the ground as the TV entertained itself.”

I loved “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” a simple ditty performed on acoustic guitar, with chord changes as predictable as sunrises. But then Mr. Hibbard starts singing: “Love of mine, someday you will die/ But I’ll be close behind and I’ll follow you into the dark/No blinding light or tunnels to gates of white/Just our hands clasped so tight, waiting for the hint of a spark.”

Think Romeo and Juliet. Two lovers dying together, perhaps the most meaningful and romantic farewell of all.

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