|Photo by Michael Muller|
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: “I’m 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 population’s sleeping.” Then he stopped for a breath of fresh “airport runway” air and renewed the sneer directed at his beleaguered host. “I can’t see why you’d want to live here.”
On Death Cab’s 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, there’s a catch, one Gibbard reveals so gently you wonder if he’s admitting it to himself for the first time. “There was a girl with light-brown streaks, and she was beautiful/But she didn’t mean a thing to me.” It’s 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 that’s like, but does anyone else?
Sitting around with Gibbard and the rest of the band one afternoon a few weeks ago, I don’t really feel like asking him about the girl or why he slept with her even though he didn’t 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 you’ve 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. “There’s no blame for how our love did slowly fade/And now that it’s gone it’s like it wasn’t 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 don’t 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 You’d 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. They’re so obvious that I don’t 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” isn’t 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 rock’s surprise sensation of the year. “I’d come down every month or so, and though I didn’t 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 don’t feel in New York; in New York I feel cradled by the city, but in L.A. I feel like you can’t see your way out of the city, out of the strip malls. There’s very few places where you can feel alone.” He’s right: That’s what Transatlanticism is for.
Death Cab for Cutie play the Henry Fonda Theater on Friday, November 14.