What is the best Death Cab For Cutie album? If you prefer the early era of the band, when they were just a couple of articulate Bellingham indie kids navigating a faint mist of emotion, you might call it the second release of 2000 We have the facts and we vote yes. If you prefer superstar Death Cab, the alternative radio pillars that convey the same deep feelings in shimmering hi-fi, you might call their 2003 breakthrough transatlantism or the 2005 major label debut Plan. Personally, I’ve always preferred the one that falls in between those phases, released this Saturday 20 years ago. It is called The photo album, and it’s the sound of DCFC that comes into play.
As their indie rock ancestors changed in the Pacific Northwest OCRockstar colleagues Modest Mouse and Built To Spill, Death Cab, were wildly prolific in their early years. The photo album arrived just 18 months later We have the facts; in between the band brought their fan-beloved Forbidden love EP, featuring ‘Photobooth’, widely heralded as one of Death Cab’s best songs. (Confusingly, “Photobooth” isn’t on The photo album.) They also seemed to make giant leaps in visibility with each successive release, years before Seth Cohen ever uttered their name — although, to keep things in perspective, in early 2002 they were still obscure enough to co-headlining trip with the Dismemberment Plan, the ingeniously titled Death And Dismemberment Tour.
While top sideman Chris Walla kept his role as producer, as he would for all Death Cab albums up until his departure in 2014, The photo album marked the band’s first venture into a real studio after years of mid-fi home recording. You can hear the difference right away on the sparse soft opener “Steadier Footing”, and you can Real hear it when the appropriate cinematic arrangement for “A Movie Script Ending” comes to life. That song would also spawn Death Cab’s first music video, though an old interview with Georgetown’s student newspaper suggests it was preceded by a homemade clip for “I Was A Kaleidoscope” that has since been wiped off the internet.
It’s not just that the band was approaching the trappings of a professional music career. They also wrote bigger, catchier, more visceral songs. Ben Gibbard’s lyrics became less oblique, and instead of drifting sleepily through the music, his boyish tenor now shone brightly atop the mix. The guitar riffs were just as hooky – dipping and diving, tying knots and pulling strings. In addition to the emo-adjacent lead work, Gibbard and Walla were figuring out how to use their pedalboards to create fuzzy shadows and huge waves of beauty. “Blacking Out The Friction” and “Coney Island” used keyboards like falling snow. Multiple reviewers cited “We Laugh Indoors” as evidence of creative progress, with all those textures lurking on the edges of Michael Schorr’s cracking uptempo drum beat. And if they hadn’t already graduated from the world-conquering greatness of “transatlanticism” – “Come ooooooooon!” and all that – the wordless “ba-ba” melody that carries “Styrofoam Plates” to its conclusion is a clear precursor to fearlessly accessible dishes like “The Sound Of Settling”.
Yet the idiosyncrasy remained. Now if Death Cab rocked harder, they were still very soft, thanks in no small part to Gibbard. His delicate delivery and “five dollar words” helped define the sensitive, erudite indie archetype that would prove extremely lucrative on screen over the next decade, as misleading as it was. Gibbard was here writing bookish indie pop lyrics about “scarves and caps and sweaters” and girls named Guinevere. Its literary quality extended to his gift for powerful storytelling: I was surprised to learn that “Styrofoam Plates” — an increasingly fervent diatribe about a beaten to death father falsely exalted at his funeral, culminating in “He was an asshole in life, so a bastard in death” — was not autobiographical. However, we learn quite a bit about Gibbard through his lyrics, including facts that would later take on a deeper meaning. His fascination with old-fashioned correspondence on “Information Travels Faster” would last two years later paid off when he and Jimmy Tamborello made an entire album via snail mail (and, of course, called it The Postal Service).And perhaps the anti-Los Angeles lyric “Why you’d want to live here” ported that his later marriage to Hollywood actor Zooey Deschanel wouldn’t hold out.
Gibbard can be damning on those first few Death Cab releases, but bitterness isn’t the main mood I detect anywhere The photo album. His songs run with excitement. They sound like a band figuring out how awesome they can be, full of possibilities, repeatedly translating all that potential energy into kinetic payoff. These guys went somewhere, but not without first paying tribute to where they came from. Rarely was Death Cab more powerful than on “A Movie Script Ending”, their song about the emotional whiplash of returning to Bellingham after touring only to be back on the highway. The track is littered with allusions to the group’s birthplace, the streets they walked, and the bar stools they settled on. The skies on Railroad, the storefronts on Holly – this is the world Death Cab For Cutie is forged. They had already transcended it by The photo album, but no one knew at the time how much further they would go.