When Death Cab for Cutie moved from its long-time home at Barsuk Records to Atlantic, lead singer-songwriter Ben Gibbard vowed that nothing about the band’s stripped-down sound or indie sensibilities would change, and he’s certainly delivered on that promise with the group’s new record Plans. In fact, far from selling out (if such an act even exists), Plans in many ways goes deeper into indie territory than its predecessor, 2003’s Transatlanticism. Purists—and haters styling themselves purists—will no doubt claim that Plans is more “produced” than previous Death Cab offerings. Indeed, Gibbard has loaded (some might say overloaded) the album with quiet, introspective ballads in what seems to be a conscious effort to evade that criticism.
But, if Plans suffers from producer-itis, it’s hardly noticeable. Most of the tracks are the same guitar, bass, drums, and stark tenor for which Death Cab has come to be known. Sure, there’s the occasional swelling, inspirational cue on “Someday You Will Be Loved” and “Your Heart Is An Empty Room, and the drumming is robotic on “Summer Skin” and, perhaps intentionally, on “Marching Bands Of Manhattan.” But these are minor quibbles even for die-hards and shouldn’t manifest themselves at all for casual Death Cab fans. Plans’ bigger problem is Gibbard’s often factitious lyrics. On the album’s single “Soul Meets Body,” he intones: “In my head, there’s a Greyhound station/Where I send my thoughts to far off destinations.” But, one presumes, only if his thoughts can afford the bus ticket. It’s not that he isn’t being emotionally honest, it’s just that he’s working way too hard to prove it. Such lyrics, combined with Gibbard’s straining, nasal tenor and the glut of near-bathetic adagios frequently make Plans come off like a bizarre Counting Crows-Flaming Lips hybrid.
Nevertheless, there are places where this record shines. The Shins-esque “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” is a charming example, and “Brothers On A Hotel Bed” is earnest and moving. But tracks with any kind of hook or pop (cf. “The Sound Of Settling” from Transatlanticism), are sorely missed. Maybe Gibbard is saving such stuff for the next Postal Service (his other, happier band) release. Whatever the case, Plans is best bought by those who like their pop music slow and tranquil—over and over again. Newcomers looking for a solid indie-pop record would be better served picking up Death Cab’s last album.