How powerful is the sensitive male stink conveyed by Death Cab for Cutie? I'm on a New York City subway, where no one no one talks to strangers, and despite my wedding ring, bad haircut, and general homeliness, a young woman approaches me, drawn to the bleed from my iPod earbuds of Death Cab's latest, Plans.
If only television-marketed men's colognes packed this much punch.
Death Cab, the Seattle-based four-piece led by überempathetic frontman Ben Gibbard, has delivered its first major-label disc just in time for the start of another school year. In other words, just in time to accompany the late-night, post-mixer fumblings and semisober trysts of college freshmen across the country. For those truly are the moments rather than, say, organic chemistry or basic accounting that render those years so bittersweet, and Death Cab is the most bittersweet band since the equally ridiculously named Toad the Wet Sprocket more than a decade ago. And its music, like those first campus encounters, will inevitably connect more than a few ineffectual innocents.
"Somewhere in our Internet-obsessed, kind of Pitchfork world," Gibbard says from his home in Washington state, "people somehow got the assumption that listening to weird, Swedish electronic music makes you cool. It doesn't. It makes you weird. It makes you a geek. So this idea of listening to music that nobody else likes and that making you cool, to me, seems totally ridiculous. And I say that as somebody who likes weird music that nobody else likes."
Despite Gibbard's own tastes, Death Cab's sound is far from weird. In fact, thanks to his starry-eyed melodies and aspiring verbiage, it's downright popular. Christen the blend of lush lyrics and opulent orchestration prog-pop (yes,Virginia, you do hear strains of Tormato-era Yes in the band's current single/video, "Soul Meets Body"), nerd rock, or even make-out music for the terminally wallflowered. Whatever. Just rest assured that it has struck a chord.
"I remember having conversations about, you know, what we wanted to do," Gibbard says of the band's early days. "I mean, these are conversations that go back to around the time  Transatlanticism came out, before any of the craziness happened over the last couple of years. It's like, you know, we're in a pivotal position. We can either try to accomplish what our heroes like R.E.M. accomplished, or we can go the course and be just like all the indie bands that have had indie careers that we've always admired and go back and play the same clubs to the same people, over and over and over again.
"We're at a crossroads where I think we would rather take a chance and see what happens than play the safe card and do what we've always done. And so far, it seems like things are working out well."
That may be the understatement of the year. Plans debuted at number four on Billboard's Album Chart, building on the odes to awkward shared experience found on the group's Transatlanticism breakthrough. From that album, enter the unlikely tribute to a hickey from "Tiny Vessels" and the line "you'd skip your early classes and we'd learn how our bodies worked" from "We Looked Like Giants" as evidence of anthems tailor-made for a generation of ravenously anxious youth.
Plans manages to up the ante. Songs like "Soul Meets Body," "What Sarah Said," and "I'll Follow You in the Dark" promote a kind of predeath grab for all that matters, a thematic update of Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With." Imagine Saul Bellow's "Seize the Day" set to music and run through a tenderizer.
Of course, with the rush of success comes risk, and Gibbard's wordy ambition veers dangerously close to the aural equivalent of a chick flick. Granted, the lyrical coda of "What Sarah Said," "love is watching someone die," beats "love means never having to say you're sorry" by a wide margin, but more than once has the band wiggled its toes over the cliff of preciousness. Incantations on love and longing, souls and sharing, render Death Cab this generation's sensitivity signifier.
That's fine by Gibbard, even when a Spin cover story labels him as "sensitive." Even when Rolling Stone gets his dad to agree.
"I don't feel like I'm overly sensitive," he says. "I think that the word sensitive can have a negative connotation. If I'm a sensitive person, I think it's because I consider myself a really aware person. I feel like I'm a realist to a fault at times. I think my brain's working overtime all the time and kind of analyzing every word out of somebody's mouth probably more than it needs to. So I think in that situation, I'm very sensitive. I mean, I don't sit at home writing sappy poetry and crying into my girlfriend's genitals or anything like that."
Not that there's anything wrong with that. But there's no way the 29-year-old singer could choreograph those carnal highlights with the appropriate musical mood if he hadn't lived them himself.
"We like to have our own soundtrack for virtually every moment in our lives," he says. "It's like you carry an iPod when you're walking down the street. I put on music when I'm going to sleep. Like, I've got a record on right now while I'm talking to you. Not paying attention to the record, but it's filling the space around me, you know? And so, yeah, naturally there was music involved in all those kind of early experiments."
Ahem. Early experiments?
"If I recall correctly," Gibbard confesses, "I think... Well, of course I remember because, you know, you don't forget things like that, but I think Jesus & Mary Chain's Darklands was my, uh, first soundtrack, if I can put it as lightly as possible. That was the first soundtrack to finding out exciting things."
So, yes, it's fine by Ben Gibbard.
"There was a moment years ago on tour where some guy came up to me and was talking about how his girlfriend wanted to buy our record, and then they'd go home and make love to it or something like that," he says. "I was like, well, you know, at least it's being used for good and not evil."
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