Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Brett Allen
The most abstract thought that every person must get battered with, beaten into jelly by multiple times in a lifetime is: If this isn't love this time, then what is it now? The clever subterfuge, the blatant trickery of the most slippery emotion in the books has stymied the hardened, the gullible, the suckers, the wise owls, the young, the old and the repeaters - and that doesn't cover everyone. Not often does it feel appropriate to quote a line from the movie "Old School," outside the state of alcoholic obliteration, but the fawning diner server had a point when he explained to Luke "The Godfather" Wilson, "Love…she's a motherfucker."
It's crass, appropriately enough. It exhibits a thoughtful pause and a breath, showing that the consternation is still there and impaling - that the words, the definition of what love really is aren't easy to come by. It's short and direct and everyone, whether they care or want to hear the dirty words or not, can solemnly nod, silently time-traveling back to the last time love was just that to them. More so than a Major League baseball player's batting average, in which a man is paid $10 million dollars a year if he can bang out a base hit three out of every 10 times at the plate, a person can feel lucky and thankful for a success rate in love that is considerably lower than 30-percent. It can be a 1-percent success rate as long as that one good one is the last one - the final try. Ben Gibbard, the lead singer of Seattle band Death Cab For Cutie, has to believe in that one-percent or he would have started writing fiction full of gallows humor and pessimistic ramblings about the sky falling years and years ago. He would have cut off his ear and stopped seeing other people the same way he has always seen them - as gentle hunters, seeking something special in others, searching for that other one to discontinue the search henceforth and for all time, admiring longingly when lightning strikes close to them. He's needed the undying backing of fellow romantics, guitarist Chris Walla, bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr to flesh out these various tributes and tributaries of love that he's continued to find depth and exception and calamitous beauty in.
It's a band that is resiliently relationship-al, relentlessly trying to tack another specimen to the research of slip-ups and the delicate cherry stories of love taking root, the bated breath tales that get fingers crossed and hopes cautiously high. It's all a great experiment that continuously unfolds, redresses and teases. Death Cab is chicken soup mostly, piping hot and ready to medicate or just soothe one into a feeling of comfort. Gibbard is similar to the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, an obsessive about the fascinating life of love and its dominant personality, attentive and thorough when regarding its actions and almost more importantly, its non-actions - those pantomimes that make for long days and nights of wondering what will become of any of it or none of it. Neruda wrote, "What's wrong with you, with us/What's happening to us?/Ah our love/Is a harsh cord/That binds us wounding us/And if we want/To leave our wound/To separate/It makes a new knot for us and condemns us/To drain our blood and burn/Together." Gibbard is more sentimental about love, but on the band's newest, Narrow Stairs, as with the rest of the band's albums, there is just as much condemnation of the power of the feeling as there is appreciation. It's always light condemnation, but a reoccurring theme of souls and bodies acting independently before coming into accordance with one another when love hits plays out frequently. The songs find ways - in their chiming and sweets tones, the perfect rumble and tumble of drums and bass as if replicating the hands and hearts flopping all over each other seeking touch like fish in a fisher's net - to look deeper into the intricacies of the stitchery, the binding past lives of hearts and their inconclusiveness.
There's a parquet on the new album that symbolizes many of the ways that Death Cab have taken toward explaining this temperamental notion through the years. They've always made love something of a distant point - a far off constellation - that could in the blink of an eye be pulled close enough to feel its eyelashes flicking open and closed against your ticklish cheeks. It - while happening in a constantly moving world, amongst constantly changing faces - gets set in a lighting that makes the advancing confrontation of unsuspecting party No. 1 and unsuspecting party No. 2 feel monumental. Tastes are tasted, white and blue sparks are set off like both just got clocked and smells and touches are enriched with magic dust. So far, most of the stories that Gibbard and Death Cab have given us have ended without that one-percent. They ride the wave, get up and brush themselves off again for a hearty second try, but the characters are typically left to seek mending, to cross themselves again and throw love back down the hatch for another go around saying, "Here goes nothing." The words are comforting, coming from Gibbard's high-marked voice, that all hearts can be mended in time, that love will return, that someday you will be loved - after all of these exceptional series of blurs.
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