By Daniel Garrett
Death Cab for Cutie, The Open Door
Atlantic Records, 2009
“It’s nice to wake up at 7:30 a.m, go running, write songs, then stay in and watch a movie.”
—Ben Gibbard, Performing Songwriter interview (May 2008)
Death Cab for Cutie’s The Open Door engages both critical realism and sensitivity: a confrontation of self with both mind and world. It is music that is easy to like as it is full of energy and a certain appeal I would be inclined freely to call charming if the band’s themes didn’t so fundamentally embody a genuine quest for truth, a quest that is always rigorous and not infrequently painful.
Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, a singer and guitarist, has said that lyrics are important to him, that even a great melody is no substitute; consequently, hearing the words of the songs on The Open Door offers more than the typical fragments and incoherence of many modern musicians. “Little Bribes,” a composition with lyrics suggesting the loneliness to be found in a crowd, lyrics featuring some of the smart talk and idiosyncratic style of a certain kind of person who wants more but has to settle for less. The song has a joyful momentum, a contrast to the sobering lyrics, and the singer Ben Gibbard’s voice really is pretty: his voice can embody the sound of the too sensitive boy, the boy who can become a beloved artist or an infamous psychopath. “Writing, to me, has always been a solitary venture, regardless of the physical location,” Ben Gibbard told Performing Songwriter (May 2008), but the music here has the crowd-pleasing liveliness that Gibbard with his bandmates bassist Nick Harmer, drummer Jason McGerr, and guitarist and frequent producer Chris Walla have come to value.
“A Diamond and A Tether “ acknowledges intimidation, the “safe” way one can choose to live one’s ordinary life, the hopes that may be compromised but do not leave us, the alienation that can result. That is not a new theme for this band, whose ambition has been to write songs that diverse people can relate to, and whose conversations and songs have remarked on the hope and disappointment of intelligent people. “I have fantasies about being alone. It’s like love is a lesson I can’t learn,” sings Gibbard, against guitar and drums. “I’m not half the man that I should be,” he declares, speaking and singing for many others. “My Mirror Speaks,” a song with a line that gives this short collection of compositions its title, “I always fall in love with an open door,” has a heavy but quickly moving beat. The set is rounded out by “I Was Once A Loyal Lover,” about immaturity and a self-knowledge that might be pointless, and a different version, a simpler, more spare, version, of a song, “Talking Bird,” that was on Death Cab for Cutie’s album Narrow Stairs. Gibbard has noted that liking interesting things doesn’t make a person interesting—well, that may be true, but it certainly gives you something interesting to think about, as with The Open Door, making us glad that the band values its own artistry as much as it does, and has had the talent, luck, and commitment to fulfill its own goals.
Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. He has written fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism. Daniel Garrett’s web log at Blogger.com, focused on culture and society, is called “City and Country, Boy and Man.” His e-mail address is D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com