Existing cliches don’t really do justice to the sort of progress that Death Cab For Cutie have made between the release of their 2018 album Thank You For Today and its follow-up Asphalt Meadows. To employ another cliche, we might say they’ve “dusted off the cobwebs” or that they’re “experiencing a second wind.” But in order to really understand the scale of Death Cab’s shift in both sound and quality, there’s no real substitute for whacking on the first track of their new album, “I Don’t Know How I Survive,” and letting the reverberating, glitchy fuzz of the band’s newly amped-up guitars intersect with Ben Gibbard’s heavenly falsetto and grip you with an animated sense of movement that Death Cab For Cutie have seldom engaged in.
Asphalt Meadows comes off the back of a handful of albums that even that most dedicated Death Cab fan would likely have found lackluster. Fortunately, it knocks that trend decisively on the head. The band has turned up both the theatrics and the volume, embracing the touches of electronic instrumentation and funky riffage that have been present but marginal on previous albums and placing them front and center. Out with the glittering guitars and piano-driven ballads, in with the pounding, urgent drumbeats with a forceful, shattering wall of sound behind them.
Every song on this record is permeated with a firm, forthright and commanding beat that refuses to let the music slip into the background. Even the softer tracks are imbued with understated but unignorable power, like “Fragments From The Decade,” with its hazy first half slipping into a serenely hypnotic guitar solo, or “Rand McNally,” whose warm, bubbling bassline provides the perfect cushion to its light, shimmering piano riff. “Foxglove Through The Clearcut”—the album’s greatest triumph—opens with a verse that, despite consisting of only a simple plucked guitar and Gibbard’s spoken-word delivery, feels somehow pregnant with potential and dripping with cool tension. When the lead riff finally hits—a gentle slope of distortion trickling downward like water—the effect is profoundly cinematic, like the slow-motion shattering of glass.
There’s no doubt Asphalt Meadows is more concerned with energy where past records have been elegiac, and at this, it succeeds. The payoff, though, is that if everything’s as full, as loud, and as all-encompassing as the bulk of the songs on this release are, there’s not much room left for anything subtler in the background. Death Cab are sounding more potent and polished, yes, but also more performative—“one guitar and a whole lot of complaining” this ain’t—and that runs the risk of letting their characteristic emotionality come across less as an authentic peek into Gibbard’s indefatigably earnest soul, and more of a calculated aesthetic choice. Rather than the confessional lyricism that ran through classics like Transatlanticism and Plans, a few songs on Asphalt Meadows seem more consciously based around driving home one single, repeated hook; “I’ll Never Give Up On You,” for instance, or “Roman Candles,” might well let down listeners who came to the album in search of Death Cab’s business-as-usual diary-entry style musings.
But you’d also have to be a joyless cynic to think that this trade-off isn’t basically worth it. The fact is that Death Cab have always been a pop band—albeit an indie-inflected one—and if they want to start spelling pop with a capital P, then more power to them, especially if they’re this good at it. Emphasizing one part of your musical DNA while de-stressing others can be a fulfilling experience for a musician—and, if you’re open-minded, for the listener, too.