Few bands have stuck together through the course of a quarter-century, and even fewer have proved such perseverance to be worthwhile. This is clearly not the case for Death Cab for Cutie. Releasing ten records –– each containing individual quirks and an irreplicable Death Cab stamp –– the band has proved its staying power time and time again.
Asphalt Meadows, the band’s tenth record and first in four years, marks a new chapter in the Death Cab journey. Working alongside producer John Congleton, known for his work with powerhouses such as St. Vincent and Blondie, the band takes on a brand new, incredibly intriguing sound. Synth-forward and unafraid of the experimental, Congleton’s one-of-a-kind production style is impossible to go unnoticed.
The record, however, is not without its flaws. Taking a significant dip in entertainment value through its middle –– with the tracks blending together in boredom-inducing similitude –– a listen through the entire LP is a bit tedious. Yet, its front and back end comfortably mend what the album lacks throughout its center.
“I Don’t Know How I Survive” stands as an undeniably strong opener. Utilizing a bass-like riff on a clean electric guitar (a running theme throughout the record), the song’s instrumentation immediately draws listeners in. Such instrumentation only improves when the heavily distorted bass joins the chorus, providing the track with an addictive climax. The song is a far cry from the band’s typical laid-back stylings, and it offers a peek into the LP’s experimentation.
The following track “Roman Candles” similarly captivates. A heavily modulated electronic kick drum blasts alongside lead singer Ben Gibbard’s bright vocals, reminiscent of the experimental punk band Sleigh Bells. The song embraces a new ethos far from the band’s folksy roots, combining four-piece instrumentation with unabashed synths and drum machines. While the song is a net positive to the album, Gibbard’s vocal melody throughout the chorus leaves much to be desired and hints at the record’s eventual shortcomings.
“Rand McNally” and title track “Asphalt Meadows” each play with unusual time signatures all while remaining listenable –– a feat much more complicated than it may seem. The tracks contain a perfect mix of shimmering synths and pleasing guitar riffs, making for a wonderfully engaging, boredom-free listening experience.
The same cannot be said for the next section of songs, however. With the wonder instilled by the band’s new production style wearing off, the record’s middle section begins to blend together, only emphasizing each track’s individual flaws. In “Here to Forever,” the chorus repeats one too many times, and the lyricism feels painfully on-the-nose: “In every movie I watch from the fifties/ There’s only one thought that swirls around my head now/ And that’s that everyone there on the screen/ Yeah, everyone there on the screen, well, they’re all dead now,” Gibbard sings.
The entirely spoken-word “Foxglove Through The Clearcut” proves practically unlistenable, radiating a pretentious atmosphere usually avoided by the band. “I Miss Strangers” particularly highlights the monotony of the string of let-downs; it features incredible instrumentals and mixing all while remaining unfortunately dull.
Thankfully, the LP’s final tracks pick back up again, with closer “I’ll Never Give Up On You” emerging as the unquestionable highlight of the record. Embracing the weirdness that made the first tracks on the record so excellent, Gibbard’s vocal performance prevails over an over-distorted instrumental. Repeating, “I’ll never give up, never give up, I’ll never give up on you” over and over throughout the chorus, what could have been a boring track proves to be nothing of the sort. Backed by a choir of his own layered vocals, Gibbard, along with the rest of the band, provides the album with an awe-inspiring conclusion.
Death Cab for Cutie’s new sound is simultaneously aggressive yet inviting, and the band’s most recent record is an unequivocally promising sign for its future. While Asphalt Meadows is by no means perfect, it serves as proof that Death Cab for Cutie is here to stay.