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Death Cab For Cutie - Asphalt Meadows review

Death Cab's tenth studio album is warm and bleak, their best work in years.

Back in the mid-00’s, it was hard to think of a band more aligned to a TV show than Death Cab For Cutie to Californian teen drama The O.C. (2003-2007). Put simply, Death Cab were as equal a character on the show as any actor. Misfit Seth Cohen sang their praises to his unknowing peers, album posters regularly appeared in shot and their music made several appearances on the acclaimed soundtrack. In the second season, with a TV audience of tens of millions watching, they performed live at the fictional Bait Shop venue. Endlessly hyped, the Washington band’s appearance really did feel like a high point of the year’s television. Well, certainly to those, like myself, who, in 2005 were obsessing over their music after discovering them on the hit show!

Originally content with being indie no-hopers operating within the underground, this exposure contributed to Death Cab becoming a mid-‘00s pop cultural phenomenon. Their 2003 record Transatlanticism earned indie cult classic status and such word of mouth acclaim led to an Atlantic Records contract signing. They’d then became one of the most loved bands in America. Soon both 2005’s Plans and 2008’s Narrow Stairs would gain top four charting positions in the US Billboard 200. What made this sudden success spectacular was that it was the rare case of a band finding mainstream appeal without sacrificing their artistic integrity. They hadn’t chased success, it had simply landed on their lap.

Being hard to place into a ‘00s contemporary music scene (indie sleaze, emo rock) ensured Death Cab’s music hasn’t dated as quickly as other artists from that era. Fronted by geeky hero Ben Gibbard, the Washington band have been producing tender, vulnerable guitar anthems for two and a half decades now. Their sound is empathetic, delving into topics of romantic anguish and loneliness with elegance. These are timeless topics explored again on their new one with hard hitting honesty and refreshing bleakness.

This time around, the pandemic has supplied the perfect context to Death Cab’s tenth studio album. Throughout Asphalt Meadows there’s a sense of existential crisis and an anxiety pouring out with intrigue. As a result, Death Cab are back with a bang. Albeit it's a darker bang than we were expecting, but this is easily their best work in years.

Listen, to the ringing in your ears / scrambled voices of your fears / whispering, whispering” admits Gibbard on the opening and closing words of album curtain raiser ‘I Don’t Know How I Survive’. Possessing hand claps and a funky riff, the song paints the picture of a broken man lost in his own anxieties. Such honesty is refreshing and performed with a similar infectious warmth which captured the imagination of so many two decades ago.

‘Roman Candles’ was our first taster of tenth album Asphalt Meadows back in May. The band have said it’s “about the crippling, existential dread that goes hand in hand with living in a nervous city on a dying planet”. The frantic drumming, bass and guitars do a fantastic job in complimenting its desired desolation. “It's been a battle just to wake and greet the day…” admits an overwhelmed Gibbard on the song, “I watch the world from a window on a hill / Everyone moving as I'm standing still” he continues with a powerless isolation. Just as the wallowing begins to linger a little too long, Ben comes to accept the needs to move on from the love-torn anxiety plaguing him.

Upon its release, ‘Foxglove Through The Clearcut’ was described by Gibbard as the “most personal song on the record”. The spoken-word track has warmth in abundance, a spine-tingling guitar riff setting the scene perfectly for Gibbard’s reflective lyrics. We eventually reach a breathless crashing of guitars to rise neck hairs even further. It’s a beautiful five-minutes to savour.

On ‘Here to Forever’ Gibbard confesses to not being able to enjoy his favourite ‘50s films without thinking about how all the actors within them are dead. This is classic Death Cab – a seemingly cheery tune contrasting to Gibbard’s anxiety and thoughts on mortality. “And I wanna feel the pressure of God or whatever…” nonchalantly proclaims the singer as he searches for purpose and reason to his life. The jangly ‘I Miss Strangers’ achieves something similar. The frontman feels alone from his peers and finds solace in people he’s never met: an infectious hook ensuring instant appeal.

A dirty riff carries album closer ‘I’ll Never Give Up On You’ to dramatic effect. Despite’s Gibbard feeling of detachment from society at large, we still manage to complete the album on a hopefully defiant message. So while the album explores heavy topics of depression, anxiety and self-reflection, we somehow depart the record wanting more. And therein lies the album’s strength: no matter how bleak things get, the record never feels fully contrived or too wallowing. You’re still hanging about with empathy, still strongly rooting for the protagonist.

In recent years, even the most ardent fan couldn’t deny the drop in quality of Death Cab’s work and there being a feeling that their best music was far behind them. Asphalt Meadows reverses the trend: there is a lot to love here. It’s clear the last couple of years have been troubling for frontman Ben Gibbard and over this record he pours out these emotions with both warmth and bleakness. After all, it’s both infectious and easy to identify with. Death Cab are back and proving why their television exposure twenty years earlier is still so justified.


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