Music columnist Axel Koch checks in with indie darlings Death Cab for Cutie at the O2 Academy, eager to see if their live performances hold up after a string of less than favourable releases
A few years ago, Ben Gibbard and his band Death Cab for Cutie, stalwarts of the indie scene of the Pacific Northwest, started facing a problem shared by many of their contemporaries: having built their name and reputation on mopey and sad love songs, they came to a point in their lives where they were actually pretty content and couldn’t authentically sing about these emotions anymore. For a while it looked like they were handling it pretty well. 2008’s Narrow Stairs showed the band incorporating new musical influences into their signature sound, and 2011’s Codes and Keys mined Gibbard’s newfound married bliss with Zooey Deschanel for giddy-eyed pop songs – it didn’t work for everyone, but for my money, “Doors Unlocked and Open”, “Stay Young, Go Dancing”, and “You Are a Tourist” can stand proudly next to the downcast songs of heartbreak from their early days.
So it’s not Gibbard’s happiness that is to blame for the utter slog of Death Cab’s last two releases, Kintsugi and Thank You for Today. Really, Kintsugi was quite a downer at points (the Zooey Deschanel period was over by then), but unlike young Gibbard, who found the poetic in the trivial when singing about break-ups and unrequited love, the lyrics of the middle-aged Gibbard are an uneven stack of bland clichés over boring melodies that really showcase how essential former guitarist Chris Walla, who left the band in 2014, was to Death Cab’s success.
Without Walla, the remaining members of the original line-up (Gibbard, bassist Nick Harmer, and drummer Jason McGerr) seem like mid-level insurance salesmen, who, now in their forties, have made peace with the fact that they will never be part of upper management and are fine with doing the same exact thing every single day from 9 to 5 until they can finally retire. Dave Depper and Zac Rae, who joined the band in 2016, are their newly hired colleagues, not entirely sure what their jobs entail as of yet but making sure no one notices by staying in the background and mimicking what the old guard have done. On Saturday nights, Ben, Dave, Jason, Nick, and Zac (shame there’s no Chad in there) go out to drink some Coors Light at TGI Fridays and get turnt up.
Well, last Saturday night I got to see them on one such a night, except it wasn’t at TGI Fridays, but at the 02 Arena, where Death Cab were performing as part of the Thank You for Today world tour. Entering the stage at exactly 9 p.m. like dutiful, punctual choir boys, DCFC open up with “I Dreamt We Spoke Again”, a dirge masquerading as a pop song, shakily held up by a boring keyboard melody and somnolent drums. Not much changes after that, as the band places too much importance on their more recent music, while not a single song gets played off their classic first two albums. Everything sounds very clean, very adult-contemporary, very endlessly rehearsed and utterly unspontaneous. When Gibbard and McGerr joke about the legality of weed in Seattle versus in Glasgow, it feels like listening to your dad talking about how he once tried “Mary Jane”.
They do eventually incorporate some of their earlier songs as well – the two “I Wills” (“… Follow You into the Dark” and “Possess Your Heart”) actually sound quite good, and, while neutered and somewhat emotionless, “What Sarah Said” and “Title and Registration” still retain some of the punch they had on record. “Cath…” is the only song that arguably sounds better live, its propulsive rhythm enlivening the otherwise listless second half of the gig – just because you’ve now got enough material to play two dozen songs doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. It’s almost a wonder that they make it through the whole one hour and fifty minutes of it all without sipping an Innocent smoothie in between.
When “Transatlanticism” comes on as the fourth (yes) encore, it’s kind of like at the end of a flat party, when it’s 5 a.m., everyone’s sitting on the couch, you’re sobering up and not really enjoying it anymore, so you’re wanting to leave, but still you’re not quite able to muster up the energy to get up just yet, and then someone puts up an absolute banger of a song, so you just all sit there in silence, united in half-cut bliss. It’s great. But it’s also just one song.
Opener The Beths, a jangle pop band from Auckland, New Zealand, are actually the highlight of the night, delivering their short pop songs with more energy and heart than the main act – not for nothing does Gibbard quip that his dream is to play with them at some point. If that performance and their excellent 2018 LP Future Me Hates Me are any indication, then in a few years’ time, The Beths might be the main draw.