A guilty pleasure is a strange thing in music. It’s very difficult to be fully convinced that any particular sound is “wrong” to like. Quite simply, the intangibles always take over: if it sounds good to your ear, you’re going to listen to it. That sort of obvious statement seems unnecessary, but is actually quite relevant.
I don’t like emo. In the most basic sense, I hate the whining involved, I don’t like the constant-sorrow narratives, and the music itself never seems very innovative. Groups like Good Charlotte, Fall Out Boy, Hawthorne Heights and Panic at the Disco always manage to offend the senses. Derivative lyrics and obnoxious clothing choices only work to push me away.
But then there’s Death Cab for Cutie. By most senses of the term “emo,” Death Cab is an emo band. They sing about failed personal relationships, they are generally sorrowful, and they even manage to border on whiny.
Yet they’re quickly becoming one of my favorite bands. I think the issue is two-fold (benefiting Death Cab).
I. Emo Lyrics and Vocals: Not Death Cab
Firstly, they manage to have some of the most captivating lyrics and vocals in all of music. While the topics tend toward individual pain, the points are so well articulated that sympathy and legitimate interest is generated. On “Title and Registration” (off Transatlanticism), vocalist Ben Gibbard sings:
And here I rest where disappointment and regret collide/Lying awake at night.
This nuanced view of his life is something that is lost in so many emo groups. Instead of merely complaining about how the individual has been ruined by society, Gibbard notes his own involvement in personal fate. The key word here is “regret.” Regret implies a feeling of disgust for something directly driven by his own actions. While this may mean actually mean inaction, the fact remains that something was done (or perhaps not done), and a choice was made. In generalized emo, the singer always comes across as a complete victim, commenting on how “my girlfriend left me” or “my world sucks.” Death Cab for Cutie moves beyond this, leaving victimization behind. Suddenly, it is decision-making that is called into question. Careful reflections on the past are utilized, rather than a tone of hate for the present.
Even the band’s most recent release (Narrow Stairs) manages to have particularly involving lyrics. One of the most thought-provoking songs here is “Cath,” a tale of a woman who wed a man that she didn’t truly love. Throughout the song, Gibbard tells about how the titular woman managed to push out many others who “would have loved you [Cath] more.” Initially, this seems an indictment of Cath’s life, perhaps an attack at a former lover. It would appear that Gibbard is disgusted that Cath never stayed with him. But then a sudden twist alters the entire track as Death Cab notes:
And if our hearts were dying that fast/…/I’d have done the same as you
Quite quickly, the angry and accusatory tone of the song is gone, and empathy is reached. Never has an emo song seemed to reach out from one painful heart to another (except maybe to encourage group wallowing). Here, Death Cab for cutie shows a great maturity, understanding the needs and thought processes of other humans. The listener cannot help but feel honored to hear such brave lyrics.
The level of maturity present in the lyrics from Death Cab is only further complimented by the singing power of Ben Gibbard. Instead of working to sound as somber as possible, the vocalist uses a style more akin to a folk singer. Light voice work is carried throughout most songs. However, the nuances of his ability further separate Death Cab from so many other “emotional” bands. Use of tonal irony and storytelling styles work to show Gibbard painting portraits. When juxtaposed with the lyrical content of the songs, a full scope is achieved.
Yet this more laid back vocal style does not remove any chance for venomous tracks in the Death Cab catalogue. Indeed, one of the band’s most biting songs, “For What Reason” (off We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes) features Gibbard on the attack. After apparently being cheated on, he notes, scathingly:
When your apologies fail to ring true/So slick with that sarcastic slew/Of phrases like “I thought you knew…”
The singing, while no louder than in other songs, have a much harsher texture. Here, we see that Gibbard is not afraid to attack the sources of his sorrow. This, too, yields another point of comparison against the crop of emo bands. Instead of merely complaining about getting trodden upon, Death Cab for Cutie calls out the aggressors, thus turning the tables and creating a song of biting anger, rather than a track describing a feeling of disenfranchisement. Death Cab sound ready to return a volley; emo sounds ready to place razor blade to wrist.
II. Emo Blah Music: Also Not Death Cab
As a second point, and perhaps even more importantly, Death Cab for Cutie has amazing music (in terms of pure sound). In a general sense, many bands don’t seem to utilize their most sonically difficult songs as singles, and rarely do these pieces become popular (when complex). It is encouraging, then, that the first single from this year’s Narrow Stairs is the enthralling “I Will Possess Your Heart.” As a single, the song is cut down. However, even in this shortened form, great rhythm and vocal prowess generate listener interest. But, it is the proper album version that truly shines. With an extended intro, Death Cab for Cutie manage a Mogwai-esque instrumental, complete with looping bass and building volume. The entire experience is absolutely breathtaking, and manages to become one of the musical highlights of the year. When combined with the pop sensibility contained in the abridged single, “How I Will Possess Your Heart” seems an excellent piece of music, and one that no emo band would ever dare to attempt.
Transatlanticism is also the home to excellent musical output from Death Cab for Cutie. Perhaps the best song on the album is the opener, “The New Year.” Here, two separate ideas alternate throughout the track, creating a real sense of wonder – appropriate for a song about a new year. To begin, the song opens with attacking guitars and crashing cymbals. This nearly powerful entrance is quick to grab attention and is impressive to boot. Then, without much warning, the song transforms into a light, tight affair, with more emphasis placed on a very percussive snare drum. The alternation of these two elements then continues for the remainder of the song, and new ideas are added in each repetition. Eventually, the opening sound is complemented by an exquisite guitar solo, proving both impressive and emotionally powerful. By having this music match the mood set by title and lyrical content, Death Cab for Cutie proves themselves as far more valuable than any emo group. Indeed, this sort of talent makes them essential.
Death Cab for Everyone
It is unfortunate that general lyrical content and misconceptions about musical output seem to follow Death Cab for Cutie. As Death Cab has become more popular, critics have sounded in harsher terms about the band’s seemingly derivative nature. Yet, the increase in exposure has managed to bring the band into the ears of many new listeners (including this author). And upon further investigation, it’s hard to see where critical analysis has gone to label Death Cab for Cutie as useless or “not innovative.”
In a very simple statement: Death Cab for Cutie manages to connect and impress in ways that few other modern bands manage to do. If Pitchfork views Narrow Stairs and Transatlanticism as boring affairs, then they seem to be missing something important. Mature lyrical expression and impressive musical output result in Death Cab being an artistically legitimate band that somehow manages to reach new levels of popularity.
It has been argued that those who claim to dislike Nirvana are merely trying too hard to be cool. I would like to make the following analogous comment: if you don’t like Death Cab for Cutie, you’re trying too hard to seem cool.