Millennial Masterpieces #1: Death Cab for Cutie – [Plans]

Welcome to Millennial Masterpieces, where I’ll look back at a great album released within the past 17 years and see what its legacy is. Kicking it off will be a personal favorite- my all-time favorite album in fact – Death Cab For Cutie’s major label breakthrough Plans.

Released: August 30th, 2005

When the middle of 2005 rolled around, there was no sound for alternative rock. Nu-metal had all but dried up, and the last vestiges of mod/garage were floating away into the ether. The electronic pop wave wouldn’t start percolating until 2007 and fully bloom in 2011, so for about five years bands had to actually define their own sound. It was incredibly liberating, and it gave us dozens and dozens of instantly recognizable sonic fingerprints that we’re just not getting these days.

Death Cab‘s fingerprint was the pacific northwest, distilled. They took that Modest Mouse/Built to Spill earnestness and made it human. More specifically, they made it young human. It was emo for the bookish, those who’d rather be in a literature class than a mosh pit, but were still subject to pangs of angst. Existential, lovelorn, and wistful: this was a dangerously addictive combination for thousands of teenagers and young adults. They’d already had a massive cult hit with their 2003 release Transatlanticism, and Ben Gibbard had another success with his side project The Postal Service and their seminal Give Up.  Adding to the perfect storm was the fact that mega-hit teen soap opera The O.C. championed the band relentlessly.

So they signed to Sub Pop, and as with any band signing to a major label, they honed their sound even further. It’s the ultimate balancing act- streamlining your sound for a wider audience while staying true to your roots. Death Cab pulled it off with ease, sticking the landing over and over and over again. Twelve gems, all subtly different but woven together with the same autumn-coloured thread. Releasing this record at the very tail end of summer was a stroke of genius, as this no doubt provided the soundtrack to many dramatic school year developments.

“Soul Meets Body” got the band the radio play they deserved, but it was the quiet acoustic brilliance of “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” that would end up becoming the band’s calling card. It would also be mangled by college bros across campuses everywhere, but such are the perils of fame. Lying at the intersection of folk and indie, it remains a campfire staple to this day.

It’s the only solo outing on the record, a pause between the lush production of the other eleven tracks. Chris Walla‘s careful touches ensure that even though each song has its own personality, they all fit together seamlessly. The waltz tempo of “Someday You Will Be Loved”, “What Sarah Said”‘s recurring piano motif, and the Postal Service cousin “Different Names for the Same Thing” could have been potentially disparate, but here they complement each other perfectly. Organ features heavily on this album, as do shimmering soundscapes floating in the background. Surprisingly, there’s also a deluge of adept bass lines. Seriously- there are some real grooves here (“Summer Skin”) that you would never expect from such an earnest record.

The theme of getting old and losing touch with youth is prominently featured; the subjects of each song are either saying goodbye or thinking about saying goodbye. The heavy lyrics skirt the limits of melancholy, but the warm nostalgia cushions each lilting melody. Gibbard’s singular voice has always held a warmth exactly like the first hints of golden autumn evenings.

Plans is the definitive major label indie album, a monumental record that captures everything about the sound and parcels it out in twelve unique ways.

Top Three Tracks:Brothers on a Hotel Bed“, “Someday You Will Be Loved”, “Your Heart Is An Empty Room”