Death Cab, Bishop Allen, and They Might Be Giants Reimagine Earth

Ben Gibbard’s lyrics on Narrow Stairs, Death Cab for Cutie’s sixth full-length album, are a sizable step down from their past work, including the fairly brainy Plans. Prefix Magazine writes that the emotive Gibbard (also a Colin Meloy lookalike) sticks to the bland relationship problems of his early work:

Where Plans aimed to be about “Important” stuff like the connection between love and death, Narrow Stairs finds Gibbard more than willing to play to type…

On songs like “I Will Possess Your Heart,” the eight-minute single we featured recently on Muxed Bag, scant four-line verses punctuate the roving soundtrack, leaving the focus on Chris Walla’s production. Both “No Sunlight” and “The Ice Is Getting Thinner” rest on weak crutches of weather imagery, violating Elmore Leonard’s #1 Rule of Writing: “Never open a book with weather.” (These lessons were eventually turned into a full-on book.) And several other tracks rely on simple, one-layer metaphors, like the defeated discarding of a double bed on “Your New Twin Sized Bed.”

What’s frustrating is that Gibbard has shown lyrical signs of life before. One of his most vivid extended metaphors comes from the title track on Transatlanticism:

The Atlantic was born today and I’ll tell you how
The clouds above opened up and let it out
I was standing on the surface of a perforated sphere
When the water filled every hole
And thousands upon thousands made an ocean
Making islands where no island should go

This is beautiful: A total deconstruction of the Earth and its physics. Gibbard annihilates the entire world and recreates it with just two elements, himself and a planet, floating in darkness. Earth is just a “perforated sphere,” a gray, lifeless geometric object — this creates a reimagined world devoid of trees and soil, of color and buildings and other people. It’s black on gray. Now, when water comes down and strands the singer, the once-perforated terrain loses all relief, becoming a smooth, featureless, unnavigable world — and leaving him all the more lost.

You can find a similar exercise in this deconstructive geography in “Ana Ng,” by They Might Be Giants on their 1988 album Lincoln. The song is about a hypothetical love at the opposite side of the world, and here’s how singer John Linell introduces her:

Make a hole with a gun perpendicular
To the name of this town in a desktop globe
Exit wound in a foreign nation
Showing the home of the one this was written for

Opening with an imperative sentence, almost step-by-step instructions, Linell grabs the listener right away. Meanwhile, the “desktop globe” places you at a table, seated, as though he was just sitting there idly when this idea for finding his love popped into his head. He’s almost saying, “Here, let me show you something.” (That’s also probably music’s most romantic use of the phrase “exit wound.”)

Death Cab contemporaries Bishop Allen also try on reconstruction as they play origami with Christmas trees on “Flight 180,” from last year’s The Broken String. Much of the album is a soundtrack for globetrotting, from “The Chinatown Bus,” which threads connections between Shanghai, Tokyo, and the Eastern Seaboard, and “Like Castanets,” a traveler’s diary bouncing around Latin America. “Flight 180” begins at night, overlooking a landscape of quilted city lights:

It’s like you took the giant Christmas tree
At Rockefeller Center and
You spread it out paper-thin
But you were careful not to break a bulb
And then you mirrored it a millionfold
To shine and shine and shine along

The bulbs stretch forever into the night, streaming points of light without illuminating the blackness around them. It could be any city in the world, but the singer sees it as Rockefeller Center, a memory of home, as weary travelers often will.

MP3: Death Cab for Cutie – “Transatlanticism”

MP3:They Might Be Giants – “Ana Ng”

MP3: Bishop Allen – “Flight 180”


One response to “Death Cab, Bishop Allen, and They Might Be Giants Reimagine Earth

  1. as a geographer (sort of), i might add this:

    but i applaud the direction you’re going, and i might recommend reading Robert Hass on poetry at some point – 20th Century Pleasures is the book – as he writes a beautiful essay on the relationship between rhythm, words, and meaning.

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