In 1987, when R.E.M., one of the premier indie-rock bands of the '80s, scored
a Top 10 hit with "The One I Love," it gave notice to the legions of other indie
bands (Hüsker Dü, for instance; maybe Nirvana?) that mainstream success on
your own terms was possible. Here was an indie band that had toured the country
in a van, playing the club circuit, just like every other indie band of the day and
suddenly their music was blasting from the radio.
The first time I played Death Cab for Cutie's latest single, "Soul Meets Body," the band's first release on a major label (Atlantic), I thought of R.E.M. In listening to "Soul Meets Body," at least two things are clear: first, Death Cab for Cutie have not sold out their music (in case any of you thought leaving indie label Barsuk for a major meant they had sold out); and, second, but just as important, this band is very ambitious.
"Soul Meets Body" (the title a play on the standard "Body & Soul," recorded by Billie Holiday and many others) sounds like it should be on the radio. And that's not a bad thing. It opens with a simple riff picked on acoustic guitar, like R.E.M.'s mega hit "Losing My Religion," and has plenty of subtle musical hooks that keep bringing me back. The just-slick-enough production, bandleader Ben Gibbard's nuanced vocal performance, the infectious melodies, the dynamic shifts between verse, chorus and bridge all conspire in a way that hearkens back to The Beatles' great Top 10 hits in the mid-'60s. Based, at least, on this song, this band is no longer just making intimate indie rock; they've gone for a bigger sound and more accessible lyrics. Yet this doesn't dilute their art, it takes it up a notch. "Soul Meets Body" is Death Cab for Cutie taking the opportunity that's come their way the chance for their music to impact millions of people and run with it.
A highlight of "Soul Meets Body" comes in a bridge a minute and a
amidst dream-pop sonics, Gibbard sings in falsetto a wordless phrase. Coming
as it does after two verses, this appears out of nowhere, startling and almost
surreal, and quickly vanishes as the song rushes into the next verse.
The lyrics are romantic, in a way that recalls black-and-white foreign films
of the '60s, not Hallmark cards. "I want to live where soul meets body," Gibbard
sings. "And let the sun wrap its arms around me/ And bathe my skin in water cool
and cleansing, and feel, and feel what it's like to be new." And later: "If the
sun comes and takes you, I hope it takes me too."
We live in dark times. We feel cynical; the future seems to hold so little. In times like these we need hopeful, inspiring music, music to remind us that the romance and magic that can be part of our daily lives matter. I hope "Soul Meets Body" is soon heard on commercial radio, but if it isn't, that won't stop anyone with a fast Net connection from hearing it. And hear it you should.
"Soul Meets Body" can currently be streamed off the Neumu homepage.