Death Cab for Cutie
ABOVE THE CURRENT
Ben Gibbard places faith in geography. The sight of Coney Island shuttered up for the winter brings him peace. He’s stirred by the juxtaposition between a limitless highway and the stagnating shop fronts that pockmark his hometown of Bellingham, Washington. He seeks answers from places, waiting for a loved one’s voice to emanate from a shallow creek beneath the Bixby Canyon Bridge. Sometimes he walks away with a smile or even an epiphany; sometimes he leaves no closer to his destination. In his late forties, Gibbard is recalibrating his relationships with the locations that have steered his life and exploring how they relate to both the passage of time and to people—old friends and lovers, but strangers, too.
If there was a central thesis to Death Cab for Cutie’s tenth studio album, Asphalt Meadows, it would be to wring all you can from the time you have. “Here on paved native lands / Time disappears from the palm of your hand,” Gibbard croons on “Fragments From the Decade,” a celestial echo chamber that arrives toward the end of the record. As he watches time float away with the song’s misty synth swells, he finds profundity in the places it’s touched: the plains of Saskatchewan and Wyoming, the ocean at the edge of the continent, and the asphalt meadows.
In Ancient Greek mythology, the Asphodel Meadows is part of the underworld in which the souls of ordinary people spend the afterlife. It’s been variably described as “fertile” and “lush,” as well as “dark, gloomy, and mirthless.” Similarly contradictory are the asphalt meadows, the cities of the living. Cities are Gibbard’s muse and foil. Cities grant flickers of understanding—of belonging and connection—but ultimately their impermanence works against him, obscuring the bigger picture.
That conflict is explored during the MOR love ballad “Pepper”—in which Gibbard compares himself to a city that his addressee was “only passing through”—and during the title track, whose shuffling chorus careens around city blocks in search of concrete answers. Gibbard watches “The glow of the downtown lights / Casting shadows across your face / As if all the buildings knew / I could only know half of you.” The city can only guarantee transient, imprecise connection, he seems to argue—because, in the end, “All your bridges and roads / They all lead to an airport.”
Indeed, there’s a stronger sense of clarity in the tracks that take place between destinations. “Wheat Like Waves” is an intimate carpool through the icy plains of Saskatchewan, as glacial guitars meander through the expanse and Gibbard ruminates on the preciousness of time. “Rand McNally” required fans to undertake a literal scavenger hunt in order to gain listening access. Over spindly arpeggios that intersect like road lines on dog-eared atlas pages, Gibbard reflects on Death Cab’s nascence—living on whisky and Twizzlers, trusting the map and the music—and the instruments sparkle with contentment as he affirms his position at the band’s helm, 25 years later: “I won’t let the light fade.”
Death Cab’s lyrics often dominate the limelight, but it’s not all about geography, and it’s not all about Ben Gibbard. Asphalt Meadows’s creation was collaborative, the songs crafted through a songwriting exercise in which ideas were passed along a virtual conveyor belt. One member was charged with tracking the initial drum loop or guitar progression on Monday. On Tuesday the file would be sent to the next contributor, and it would continue its journey until Friday, when the individual pieces had become a full song, imprinted by the hands of all five members.
This experiment results in some of the most compelling work of the band’s career, like the album’s centerpiece “Foxglove Through the Clearcut.” The spoken-word epic features hypnagogic guitar/bass interplay that lays the ground for Gibbard’s emotive poetry, centering on humans’ relationship with the earth and referencing the Sand Creek massacre. He called it “by far the most personal song on Asphalt Meadows.”
On the surface—and with the exception of “Foxglove”—Asphalt offers nothing particularly new. There are obligatory unmade beds and tattoos like passport stamps, twinkling guitars and mountainous crescendos. Gibbard even asked, way back in 2015, for someone to “let me be your skyline.” But Asphalt’s sonic postcards and arcane references are driven by a newfound curiosity, one that succeeds in highlighting the best Death Cab components and stretching them farther than ever before (ohh nooo). More than the sound of setting, then, this is a rejuvenation of the fraught energy that made their career-defining albums so potent and easy to connect with.
After Gibbard and his collaborators have sifted through the decade’s detritus—after time has disappeared from their palms and life’s geography has filed into the rearview of a battered and musty hatchback—the album’s thumping finale, “I’ll Never Give Up on You,” promises to shed life’s superfluities in order to move forward. It’s an espousal of gratitude, an ode to positivity, a complete and robust parting gift—and a promise to push forward with what matters. Everything else can be left on the asphalt.