In a characteristically luminous song on the third album he made with his Seattle-based indie-pop band, Death Cab for Cutie, singer-guitarist Ben Gibbard minced no words in a depiction of Los Angeles that fortunately failed to provoke a bloody PacNorth/SoCal free-for-all: Im in Los Angeles today, he sang over a glimmering pool of reverbed electric guitar and a velvet-gloved drum beat. Garbage cans comprise the medians of freeways, always creeping even when the populations sleeping. Then he stopped for a breath of fresh airport runway air and renewed the sneer directed at his beleaguered host. I cant see why youd want to live here.
On Death Cabs gripping fourth album, Transatlanticism, Gibbard unveils a slightly improved opinion of L.A.: I spent two weeks in Silver Lake, the California sun cascading down my face, he sings in Tiny Vessels, his famed little-boy sigh pretty much exactly reflecting that rippling light. As with all indie types, though, theres a catch, one Gibbard reveals so gently you wonder if hes admitting it to himself for the first time. There was a girl with light-brown streaks, and she was beautiful/But she didnt mean a thing to me. Its the kind of moment people who love Death Cab love Death Cab for: a modestly universal truth, one anyone can relate to, musically expressed in a way that nonetheless evokes its heartbreaking specificity. Yeah, I know what thats like, but does anyone else?
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Sitting around with Gibbard and the rest of the band one afternoon a few weeks ago, I dont really feel like asking him about the girl or why he slept with her even though he didnt love her, or if she even exists at all. Transatlanticism kind of answers those questions itself: I need you so much closer, Gibbard admits over and over again in the title track, at nearly eight minutes a piano-based indie-scale epic that deploys a dodgy history of the Atlantic Ocean as a metaphor for not knowing what to say to the person you say things to. In The Sound of Settling, he describes his brain repeating, If youve got an impulse, let it out/But they never make it past my mouth. Title and Registration finds him discovering old pictures in the glove compartment; the inevitable melancholy of nostalgia follows, but then a deeper sadness forms, an inconsolable one that adults who used to be in emo bands wake up to one morning. Theres no blame for how our love did slowly fade/And now that its gone its like it wasnt there at all. The opener, The New Year, plumbs that quiet resignation even more soberly, and ultimately more depressingly: So this is the New Year, Gibbard shrugs while the band lay into a measured, percussive groove behind him. I dont feel any different . . . and I have no resolutions. Anyway, maybe the beautiful girl with the light-brown streaks actually does live in Silver Lake and is sick enough of deflecting rumors without my fanning the flames of scenester gossip. So I ask Gibbard about L.A. instead.
At its core, Why Youd Want To Live Here is really just a love song, he says. The narrator draws attention to all the most obvious negatives of Los Angeles to deter someone from moving there. Theyre so obvious that I dont think that anyone who lives in L.A. could deny the charges. True enough: garbage, traffic, people, those peskily outdated star maps. Yet Tiny Vessels isnt all vitriol.
Well, I spent some more time in L.A. because I was working on the Postal Service record with Jimmy, he explains. Jimmy is Jimmy Tamborello, local Dntel magnate and the button-pushing half of the Postal Service, underground rocks surprise sensation of the year. Id come down every month or so, and though I didnt necessarily fall in love with the city, I got to see some aspects of it that I liked. I still feel really claustrophobic, in a way that I dont feel in New York; in New York I feel cradled by the city, but in L.A. I feel like you cant see your way out of the city, out of the strip malls. Theres very few places where you can feel alone. Hes right: Thats what Transatlanticism is for.
Death Cab for Cutie play the Henry Fonda Theater on Friday, November 14.