Asphalt Meadows

Death Cab For Cutie

Atlantic, 2022

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Death Cab For Cutie may have begun as a standard twin-guitars-and-rhythm-section indie rock band, but singer-songwriter-frontman Ben Gibbard and co-founder/guitarist/producer Chris Walla were eager experimenters with keyboards from very early on. Those electronic textures have steadily grown in prominence ever since Gibbard’s 2003 collaboration with Jimmy Tamborello as The Postal Service, and it’s been interesting to hear how Gibbard has not just incorporated, but integrated them in the band’s more recent work. If the electronics had ever come to dominate, this might be a different band, but instead they’ve been folded into the mix alongside the silvery, elegant guitar lines and propulsive rhythms that have always resided at the heart of Death Cab’s songs.

Another thing that the band—these days consisting of Gibbard, Nicholas Harmer (bass), Jason McGerr (drums), Dave Depper (guitars/keys) and Zac Rae (keys/guitars)—has always done well is to harness the contrast between quiet and loud, which they demonstrate again from the first notes of latest release Asphalt Meadows. The urgent despair of kickoff cut “I Don’t How I Survive” opens quietly before blowing up like a fireworks stand and then goes through multiple cycles of loud-quiet-loud-quiet, build it up, break it down. It’s a strong effect on a dynamic, entertaining track that clocks in at a tight 3:40.

The album’s first single, the even-more-tightly-wound 2:10 “Roman Candles” leans into this modern DCFC aesthetic; the prototypical line “a hint of sweetness but the bitterness remains” highlights a hooky structure carrying an abundance of electronic fuzz in the mix. The title track bats third and arrives in classic Death Cab mode: airy melancholy with some drive behind it. That sounds simple, but it’s not the easiest combo to pull off once, let alone over and over. In the second minute “Asphalt Meadows” picks up a memorably crinkly guitar line as Gibbard delivers what feels like an elegy for a relationship with both a person and a city. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Melancholy pairs nicely with nostalgia on “Rand McNally,” where Gibbard references atlases, pay phones, and other relics of a simpler time as he reassures his partner that “I won’t let the light fade.” The melancholy gains drive with “Here To Forever,” a song about spiritual yearning with another crinkly guitar line, skittering percussion and plenty of propulsion.

If that all sounds a bit familiar, well… it is. “Foxglove Through The Clearcut” is the first flash of discovery on this album, a genuine experiment that opens with gentle sing-songy backing and Gibbard speak-singing a poem about a traveler searching for some kind of fulfillment. It feels like pure storytelling, and then the chorus hits and Gibbard sings a repeating phrase over a shimmering, descending guitar line and martial drums and it’s honestly gorgeous. In the late going, it builds to a crescendo of guitars that lights up the sky.

The logical move after that is to break it down to just acoustic and voice to start “Pepper,” which namedrops Sgt. Pepper while building to perhaps the most Death Cab chorus ever: “Kiss me just this one last time / Tell me that you once were mine.” Things get heavier on the intense, pleasantly guitar-centric anthem “I Miss Strangers” when Gibbard reminisces about early days as “two casualties of the punk wars / buried in leather”—at least until the song hits the two-minute mark, whereupon it sideslips into a fugue-state bridge with Gibbard chanting “Reach out, reach out” for a full minute before it comes back big and driving.

“Wheat Like Waves” is a wistful, uncharacteristically specific tune narrating a Canadian cross-country drive with the stories we share in private moments. It’s another experiment, albeit a somewhat simple one, and it works. “Fragments From The Decade” taps back into dreamy nostalgia, this time relying more on electronic textures.

Just when you might be feeling a little underwhelmed, closer “I’ll Never Give Up On You” arrives to save the day. It’s a simple, potent construction featuring a bold dance among big stuttering drums, atmospheric synths, jangly guitars, and layered vocals. Verses in which Gibbard lists all the things he’s given up (being cool, drugs, confrontation, politicians, and so on) resolve into the affirming punchline/chorus “But I’ll never give up on you.” It’s an anthemic song of devotion, and it’s terrific, even adding a bit of quiet/loud contrast in the late going.

Lyrically, tonally and structurally, this album will likely feel very familiar to any Death Cab fan. And there is comfort in familiarity, maybe especially when change has come to feel like an incessant knocking on our doors. It may not break fresh ground, but Asphalt Meadows is a welcome new entry in Death Cab for Cutie’s lengthy tradition of elegant melancholy.

Rating: B

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