At long last, after years of grumbling "Ya call that music? Sounds like noise to me! Now when I was yer age...", the recently-expired decade's milieu of reluctantly-labeled "alternative" musicians has produced a band that I can respect. For someone who cut their teeth on Before and After Science by Eno, Exposure by Fripp, 154 by Wire, and ...Happily Ever After by the Cure, Death Cab For Cutie offer a veritable cornucopia of sonic delight and tastefulness, rich with irony and multi-layered meaning. From the graphic concepts of the album packaging to the aural landscape of their minimal production values, DCFC hearken back to the understated yet vibrant post-punk art-rock period of twenty years ago when independent labels like Factory created album concepts that were as much objets d'art as sound recordings.
From the first notes of the laconically listed "Title Track", the unhurried music-box guitar over an almost metronomic snare beat accompany a vocal track that somehow manages to emote emotionlessly in a single breath. Vocalist/Lyricist Benjamin Gibbard weaves a tale of romance and despair that vibrates continuously, if elusively, throughout the album, which resembles in some ways a song cycle or "concept album" as they used to call them in the 70's.
The theme seems to be the emotional dramas surrounding a love affair between two individuals embroiled in the alt-rock/art scene of fin de siecle Seattle, but that may very well be reading between the lines of these delicate and impressionistic songs too much. Clues seem to arise out of the mix at certain points: The transition from "lo-fi" to a full sonic landscape after the opening song's first verse seems to be an aesthetic looking forward from the stereotypically hip and over-used "unproduced" sound prevalent in the past few years, as if to say: Just as black and white photos may obscure the fact that the world from which those photos were taken did in fact possess color, so too is it easy to forget that the universe of lo-fi rock and thrift store clothes hide lives that cover broader dimensions than those underlined by a particular, narrow style. Barely into the second verse in their first song DCFC have buried the past and entered a new millenium.
The pathos of the wistful, retrospective lyrics is heightened by their off-handed, almost detached tone. "I rushed this. We moved to fast," is not your typical admission of complicity in a rock song. When the narrator manages to work himself up to something approaching anger, it still remains abstracted--"In the end, I win every time as ink remains./Sour tastes prevail as you play back the tape machine." All of the gestures of defiance expressed are passive-aggressive, bookish, imploded, as one might expect within the music scene landscape that is perhaps being metaphorically described here.
As the songs unfold one begins to imagine a sort of Annie Hall for 90's Seattle--an ironic study of how hard it is to maintain a relationship in a cultural setting where every intention and action is scrutinized for its aesthetic content or authenticity. Indeed, much like Woody Allen, the narrator is painted as the classic cool hipoisie over-thinker whose only available gesture of outrage at an ex-lover's imminent marriage is to steal the wedding figurines from the cake.
"Company Calls", the climactic and anthemic centerpiece, sculpts this tension in vivid poetic terms. "I'd squeeze a heart through my fingertip/but I type too slow to make expressions stick"; "I'd keep a distance 'cause the complications cloud it all...synapse to synapse: possibilities will thin or fade." In the face of an inevitable dissolution, the narrator leaps from denial to acceptance with a scant leapfrog over the rage. In some sense we could appropriate the metaphor of a love affair demolished by a marriage to describe the pillaging of the alt-rock scene by commercialism. Our cool small thing looted and destroyed by the big record companies. Our cool town taken over by the dot-com yuppies. And yet, the dissolution was written in the very formulas of its initial existence, like a prophecy. The only answer seems to be to move on--"Our bodies will dissolve the chemicals in due time" the narrator observes dryly. The battle of the appropriation of independent coolness is part of the 20th century, and this album is boldly stamped with a release date from the 21st. This was the first album I bought in the new millennium, and so far it's the most fascinating.
1. Title Track
2. The Employment Pages
3. For What Reason
4. Lowell, Ma
5. Little Fury Bugs
7. Company Calls
8. Company Calls Epilogue
9. No Joy in Mudville
10. Scientist Studies