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Death Cab for Cutie | The Photo Album (Barsuk)
"Sitting in the station, it's all a blur / Of dancehall hips, pretentious quips, a boxer's bob and weave / And here's the kicker of this whole shebang / You're in debt and completely fooled that you can look into the mirror and objectively rank your wounds." The Big Takeover's supremo Jack Rabid got it just right when he said of Death Cab for Cutie "The world needs more superb pop with brains, heart and emotional complexity." 'The Photo Album', the band's third full-length further ups the ante set by their last, near-classic 'We Have The Facts and We're Voting Yes' with a masterfully imaginative yet accessible set of panoramic views, freeze-framed to emphasise details, encouraging and withstanding scrutiny. Ben Gibbard's lyrical slant, learned and inimitable, equally adept at obtuse references and emotional starkness, remains the focal point of the band, here held aloft by some inspired arrangements and ensemble playing, guitarist Chris Walla's production and mix spot-on. Ex MK-Ultra frontman John Vanderslice and Harvey Danger's Sean Nelson add a little vocal muscle to Blacking Out the Friction and I Was A Kaleidoscope but it's on the floaty A Movie Script Ending (where drummer Michael Schorr shines) and the infectious, loping rhythms of We Laugh Indoors that the four piece first draw you in. And then, tucked away in the album's final third sits Styrofoam Plates; whether autobiographical or an inspired piece of fiction this is as poignant a lyric as you'll find..."It's no stretch to say you were not quite a father / But a donor of seeds to a poor single mother that would raise us alone / We never saw the money that went down your throat through the hole in your belly... Styrofoam plates, cafeteria tables, charity reeks of cheap wine and pity / And I'm thinking of you. I do every year / When we count all our blessings and wonder what we're doing here... You're a disgrace to the concept of family / The priest won't divulge that fact in his homily ... And just 'cause he's gone it doesn't change the fact / He was a bastard in life thus a bastard in death." The following Coney Island acts as a come-down to Styrofoam Plates, a languid trawl over loops and a lolling bass-line (bassist Nick Harmer is credited for 'good idea'!) before the album closes with the sobering Debate Exposes Doubt, Gibbard in a corner of a bar musing on the "impossibility of one to love unconditionally." "Finally," he concludes, "there is clarity, this tiny life is making sense / And every drop numbs the both of us / But I alone am staggering." Find yourself in Death Cab's Photo Album.

Matt Dornan
CWAS #9 - Winter 2002