Death Cab for Cutie have a multifaceted reputation. They are perhaps the most revered indie group of their era among young millennial alt-rock enthusiasts, for whom Death Cab’s transformation from lo-fi late-’90s obscurity to mid-2000s “The O.C.” stardom provided the wistful soundtrack to their adolescence. Death Cab has also garnered legions of casual fans from their saccharine 2005 classic “I Will Follow You into the Dark,” which has since landed on innumerable romance playlists and become a certified acoustic open-mic staple. Perhaps due to the popularity of this track, however, they are also commonly derided as an overly sentimental band reserved for tormented teenagers and independent radio-loving moms.
The diversity of Death Cab’s fan base was noticeable during their crowded June 7 performance at Stage AE in Pittsburgh, PA, whose audience members included aging punks, their children, inebriated 30-somethings, my mother, my twin sister and myself. I had attended a Death Cab show at the same location and with the same company back in September 2015, so this concert felt a bit like time travelling, in more ways than one.
My perception of Death Cab is deeply rooted in nostalgia; discovering their magnum opus “Transatlanticism” at age 15 completely transformed both my passive relationship with music and my confused sense of self. Lead singer Ben Gibbard coined the album’s title to articulate the anguish of long-distance love—a feeling I had zero experience with at the time. Nevertheless, I devoured every lyric of “Expo ’86” on the bus to school each morning and required repeated listens of “A Lack of Color” to fall asleep at night. Gibbard’s lyrics are deeply personal yet just vague enough to recall universal feelings of loneliness and longing, which makes his tales of glove compartments, New Year’s Eve parties and interior decorators feel eerily like your own stories.
My formative infatuation with Death Cab is far from a unique experience, which is why they are so easily dismissed as a common high school phase. I became aware of this perception around the time of my first Death Cab concert at age 17, and I feared that a disappointing live experience would shatter my immature, idealized vision of them. While the show only reinforced my adoration, I underwent similar anxiety the second time around. “Transatlanticism” remains my favorite album of all time, yet as I stood in the same spot with my mom and sister four years later, I wondered if Death Cab’s live presence could possibly still live up to my glorified image of them as the band that changed my life.
Thankfully, this Death Cab concert proved their music only gets better with time. I enjoyed hearing their poppy 2018 record “Thank You For Today” for the first time live, but, like most of the crowd, I was ultimately there for the infinitely more personal and emotive throwbacks. The first breathtaking moment of the evening came when Death Cab played “Title and Registration,” one of their most haunting tracks. The song takes place in a car on a rainy day in the Pacific Northwest, where the narrator is absentmindedly searching for legal documents—until he unexpectedly stumbles upon pictures from a failed relationship. The track illustrates how such a trivial moment can result in a sleepless night of ruminating about repressed disappointment, regret and desolation. Listening to “Title and Registration” always feels intimate, but I was surprised to discover that hearing it among hundreds of other people felt even more visceral than listening through my headphones.
Seeing Death Cab live is like flipping through a scrapbook of memories, where you are repeatedly transported back to long-forgotten moments in time. Sun-soaked, angst-ridden anthem “Crooked Teeth” is a track I rarely listen to now, but I was quickly reminded why I once thought that its punchy bassline and imagery of weeping willow trees, homemade speed and jagged skylines made it the coolest song ever. Death Cab also have a gift for evoking more uncomfortable emotions. Gibbard sang deep cut “Styrofoam Plates,” an indignant epic about an absent alcoholic father who receives undeserved sympathy after he dies, told from the unforgiving perspective of the man’s son. His delivery is so scornful and the lyrics so detailed that most assume it’s about Gibbard’s own father, yet it’s actually about the experience of his friend. The song exemplifies the band’s unparalleled storytelling; like many of Death Cab’s early tracks, it carries the impact of a full-length movie in five minutes.
The most enchanting moments of the night, however, came when the band played their longer tracks, allowing the crowd to live within a song for a while. “We Looked Like Giants” is a sonic anomaly on “Transatlanticism”; it has little of the dreamy sadness and far more urgency. Yet underneath its nervous tone is an absolutely stunning tale of young love, in which every thrilling moment of skipping class, sharing music and sneaking around feels of life-and-death importance. Death Cab began the track with their signature lightning-fast narration before erupting into an extended instrumental break that evoked a tortured sleepless night. I closed my eyes and remembered what it’s like to be consumed by such earth-shattering desire, where every second feels like an eternity.
Underlying all of Death Cab’s best songs is this feeling of being lost within a moment, yet desperately craving something more. Death Cab concluded the evening the same way they did in 2015, with the beloved title track of “Transatlanticism.” The song is meant to illustrate the feeling of being separated from a lover across oceans, which Gibbard voices by repeating the six-word phrase “I need you so much closer.” Despite its simplicity, “Transatlanticism” is the most visibly impactful moment of any Death Cab concert, always resulting in an outpouring of tearful emotion throughout the crowd. This points to the most striking quality of Death Cab for Cutie: their stories reflect and then color our experiences, until they become inextricable from our own memories.
Image courtesy of David Lee via Flickr