Many a word has been written about the effects a move to a major label can have on an established, respected band as it makes the jump from an independent label to the big time. (Random trivia: Googling "indie + band + sellout" returns some 106,000 results, though most of them seem to be different placements of a wire service article on the most recent CMJ convention.) In citing the likes of Nirvana, R.E.M., The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, ad nauseam, the consensus seems to be that the money leads to a newfound fussiness and/or loathsome polish in the recording studio, the marketing reduces compelling personalities to caricatures, and nearly everyone ends up with swollen egos and awful drug habits.
It's hard to imagine any of these curses landing on Death Cab for Cutie, despite their recent addition to the Atlantic Records roster. And from the evidence presented on Plans, the band is indeed steering clear of these pitfalls, though they threaten to dig themselves a hole as they continue the steady slope toward mellowness that began on their previous longplayer, Transatlanticism. But where that record ruminated on the difficulties of distance, Plans is more concerned with the limits of mortality.
Polarizing first single "Soul Meets Body" serves as an appropriate enough appetizer for the larger meal that is Plans, introducing us to a few of the album's musical leitmotifs (singer Ben Gibbard's emphasis on his voice's upper register, and the big-time reliance on keyboard bits), while throwing in a red herring or two (e.g., the wordless vocalizing and that strummed mandolin, so REMinescent of that band from Georgia's breakthrough radio hit all those years ago). (And while we're on the subject of very good songs that sound like Death Cab for Cutie paying homage, there's a strong U2 vibe to the digitally delayed guitars and steady rhythms of "Your Heart Is an Empty Room," though Bono's bombast is mercifully replaced by Gibbard's more modest vocalizing.)
Never the hardest rocking of bands, Death Cab for Cutie sound positively muted throughout Plans, Gibbard's obsession with the temporary nature of relationships and life itself receiving appropriately somber accompaniment. "Summer Skin" opens like many a Death Cab song, the singer poetically laying out a situation warm days, hot nights before the denouement, in which it is revealed that although two bodies have met, their hearts have not. The tragicomic "Brothers on a Hotel Bed" comes through quiet and clear, brushed drums and piano propelling a story of deeply comfortable love, acknowledging a relationship's movement away from lovers entwined to partners sharing a bed who acknowledge the need for separate space, practicality and reality intruding on the romance as time goes by.
The album's centerpiece, "I Will Follow You Into the Dark," finds Gibbard and his acoustic guitar all by their lonesome as he pours out his heart, prematurely eulogizing his love over some simple strumming, fearfully imagining their future yet trying to project a confident air. Oddly, it's like nothing and everything Death Cab for Cutie have ever done before. Very different is "What Sarah Said," which opens with a circular piano figure that suggests someone in this band has had some training on the instrument; a funereal-sounding organ replaces, then supplements the piano as the opening verse unfolds and tells a tale from an intensive care unit that smells "of piss and 409," Gibbard poignantly observing that "every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time." As for what Sarah actually said, I'm on the fence as to whether it's the most uplifting or morbid idea I've ever heard.
Though they were never as raucous as the Minneapolis power trio, the somber quietude of Death Cab for Cutie's major-label debut reminds me of a similar move Hüsker Dü made nearly 20 years ago with their first album for Warner Bros., Candy Apple Grey, albeit in a fan-friendlier way. But where the growing bitterness among the Hüskers fueled their creative rethink and spiritual funk, the reasons for Gibbard's many meditations on mortality are less readily apparent. How can someone so young sing words so sad?