|2022||Asphalt Meadows||Death Cab For Cutie||★★★½||65||Rock||Alternative Rock|
Death Cab For Cutie has been in the post-prime of their career for over a decade. After the peaks of Transatlanticism and Plans, the band started to sound more polished and commercial, leaning more into pop mixing and radio rock tropes than the indie, more organic style they started with.
It’s a natural progression most bands have when they reach a certain level of mainstream popularity and a certain age. After all, stories of childhood experiences, lost love, innocence and coming of age tend to sound and feel a lot different coming from a 20 year old compared to someone in their 40s. There has to be that balance, when you’re older, of being grounded in the reality of your current situation while still reminiscing about the old days, or a pivot to new themes altogether before everything gets stale and feels like your treading water.
For Death Cab, and especially after Thank You For Today in 2018, I was starting to feel that was going to be that case. Sure, the band could still put out a good song or two every record, and Ben Gibbard could create some fun imagery over a memorable guitar or piano riff, but I feared that the charm would be more in the nostalgia of listening to a band that used to be great versus something found within the new music itself.
With that mindset, I went into my first listen of Asphalt Meadows with pretty low expectations, and kind of glossed over it without paying too much attention. But after a few revisits, the album’s grown on me quite a bit. It doesn’t just sound like Death Cab making songs, there’s an energy and a little bit of freshness to it that helps pick it up, mixed with some of the cuteness and wonder from before.
Compared to the mostly flat, uninspired Thank You For Today, Gibbard sounds like he’s really enjoying his time here. And while the guitar work and musical direction still is fast paced and a bit more rocky like on Thank You, the songs actually go somewhere and build, and the musical effects and production add that needed color that breathes some life into the record. The revitalized vocals, stronger hooks and musical wonderment really go a long way to recapturing the feelings of the past but with a new overall arrangement.
Varying dynamics and layers are the key to what unlocks the record’s potential. The opening track “I Don’t Know How I Survive” brings airy, echoing effects in the verses that contrast really well with the fuzzy, dense guitars of the chorus and bridge. Screeching guitars provide the contrast on “Roman Candles.” Faster songs like “Here to Forever” — my favorite on the record — “I Miss Strangers” and the title track have a few softer moments within them and contrast overall with the slower tracks on the album like “Rand McNally” and “Fragments From the Decade.”
There are still some hiccups, for sure. Overall, the guitar work is still a little basic compared to the band’s heyday (and same goes for some of Ben’s lyrics), but they get the job done. The spoken word poetry and lyrics on “Foxglove Through The Clearcut” are something new, but didn’t quite do it for me, although I do love the song’s chorus, and the loud buildup with the crashing cymbals and heavy guitar chords and solo are really reminiscent of the high marks on older tracks like “Tiny Vessels.”
“I’ll Never Give Up On You” is a bit stoic and out of place, and definitely doesn’t work as a finale. I think leaving it off and ending on “Fragments From the Decade” would have been more fitting sonically and thematically.
It’s nearly impossible for a band well into their third decade together to continually recapture what drew you in originally when you were young, and when the band was experimenting and inspired to get started. But still bringing the energy, the familiar sounds and writing good hooks goes a long way to bring back some of that warm, fuzzy nostalgia. It’s not Transatlanticism, but it doesn’t have to be to be highly enjoyable.