Indie rock can be the paradise of the jaded and the irony-driven, so for that world’s songwriters, focusing on the art of earnestness can be tricky. A well-cultivated sense of detachment sometimes scrapes up against naked baring of emotion in the most unpleasant ways.
However, for nearly 15 years, West Coasters Death Cab for Cutie have plotted a steady career climb by going light on irony, light on gimmick, light on disaffected cool, heavy on earnestness. The specifics of their emotional outpourings have varied through the years, from early albums that pondered the hesitation and uncertainty that comes along with early adulthood and the pining and/or disappointment in romance, up through, on May release Codes and Keys, an embrace of the true complexity of love and the beauty in changing and growing.
North on the Death Cab compass, though, has been singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard’s consistently permeating sense of caring, whether his words have been thick and winding with metaphor or simple expressions of clean emotion. He’s studied the desire to connect with a lover, the desire to bridge the disconnect with everyone else, wanting to find himself, wanting to lose himself, wanting to forget, wanting to remember. And within those ideas, he’s shown a poet’s knack for setting specific scenes that still evoke the common experience. He’s detailed enough to be evocative and gripping, but open enough to let his stories click tight into your own experiences, to become the words and thoughts you’d share yourself if you could conjure the clarity and honesty to arrange them.
“One thing that draws people to this band is that with every album we make, whether people like the album or dislike the album, the music that we’re making is very honest and is very true to who we are as individuals,” Gibbard told MTV Hive recently, on the occasion of his band’s episode of iconic story-sharing series VH1 Storytellers. “[But] that doesn’t mean that every record we make is a series of autobiographical moments of my life, by any stretch of the imagination.”
Gibbard may or may not be opening up about himself in specific songs, but it’s clear that he’s letting his own emotions underscore and inform Death Cab for Cutie’s albums. Within, he’s also managed to navigate the tricky transitions between young man and songwriter, twenty-something man and songwriter and mature, established man and songwriter.
On 2008’s Narrow Stairs, Gibbard descended lyrically into the kind of darkness plenty of people feel as they watch their 20s slip away and the heavy responsibility of their 30s set its roots. On Codes and Keys, he tackles an even trickier topic: happiness. Album closer “Stay Young, Go Dancing” celebrates the restorative powers of love; in “You Are a Tourist,” the band bounces over a series of warming affirmations. And those bits of brightness tend to be more direct and economical than Gibbard’s traditionally been, too.
“I probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable writing ‘Stay Young, Go Dancing’ 15 years ago, which is an incredibly simple song. A bare bones love song,” Gibbard told MTV. “There was a time in my life where I would have felt that the simplicity was not enough to hold the song, that there had to be something complicated in the lyric to justify the simplicity of the melody and the sing-songiness of it. Whether people are willing to go along with me, as a writer, into the forced, simple style remains to be seen.”
There’s plenty of audience for the writers who can adequately elucidate and communicate hurt, uncertainty and confusion, and Gibbard’s gift for it has earned Death Cab for Cutie legions of fervent devotees. They don’t seem to have shuffled off in response to Codes and Keys’ bits of positivity and simplicity, either, as the band is spending the summer and fall playing North America’s large theaters, amphitheaters and arenas. Ultimately, as Gibbard takes his knack for capturing the darkness and turns it on the light, it doesn’t come off cloying so much as it does sweet and honest. Earnest. And smart, since ultimately, what fans who find themselves drawn to earnestness are really looking for is truth, in whatever form that may take.
Ben Gibbard joined BMI in 2008. Enjoy more Death Cab for Cutie at www.deathcabforcutie.com
Nicole Keiper is a Nashville-based, New York-bred writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, SPIN, Modern Drummer and other publications.