Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Death Cab for Cutie is so post-emo

Driving home from dinner today, listening to Death Cab for Cutie on the CD player, I made a comment to John about how I'm a ridiculous little emo kid, staring plaintively into the rainy middle-distance, with my Death Cab in the CD player. And then, as "Information Travels Faster" played on in the background, it struck me: Death Cab for Cutie is not truly an emo band.

Emo music is supposed to be about heartbreak, unrequited love, that sort of thing, right? It's whiny guys complaining about how they are unloved, misunderstood, and heartbroken. But listen to some Death Cab: Ben Gibbard (the lead singer) is always the aggressor. He sounds all sad, but he's always breaking the girl's heart. And sure, maybe he's sad about it, but that doesn't make him emo. It just sort of makes him an asshole who doesn't know what we wants and hurts others as a result. Consider the evidence.

Exhibit 1: "Information Travels Faster" (The Photo Album): "I intentionally wrote it out to be an illegible mess. / You wanted me to write you letters, but I'd rather lose your address. / And forget that we'd ever met and what did or did not occur. / Sitting in the station, it's all a blur."

A summer fling he doesn't want to continue. Intentionally writing out your address so the girl can't read it? That's like giving someone the wrong phone number, except it's worse, because (1) this is obviously on the heels of some kind of seasonal encounter, as opposed to meeting someone in a bar once, and (2) there's something so intensely personal about letter-writing, that it seems like a worse betrayal. There is actually a running theme in Death Cab lyrics about seasonal flings. At least sometimes the breakdown is mutual, like in "Summer Skin," where Ben and his lady-friend both decide they don't want to be together anymore.

Exhibit 2: "Tiny Vessels" (Transatlanticism): "This is the moment that you know / That you told her that you loved her but you don't. / You touch her skin and then you think / That she is beautiful but she don't mean a thing to me."

I had to just pick a little passage for what I'm doing here, but I could have picked any line in the song. This is the single meanest song I've ever heard. A lot of the other Death Cab tunes are sort of rueful about being the bad guy in a break-up. This one relishes it. It seems intentionally, needlessly cruel. I don't consider myself an excessively emotional person, but if anybody ever sang this song about me and I realized it, I think I would be devastated. And even the non-literal components are so effective...the imagery of a hickey forming, the emotional violence of it. It's surprisingly potent.

Exhibit 3: "Crooked Teeth" (Plans): "Cause I built you a home in my heart / With rotten wood and it decayed from the start."

This one is insidious in its own little way. While it lacks the vitriol of "Tiny Vessels," it's so otherwise happy-sounding and sing-songy that you feel almost blindsided when you realize what it's about. The first few lines are so innocuous best, totally innocent, at worst, just ambiguous. And then you realize that, yet again, Ben Gibbard's gone and sexed up some poor lady and then lost interest. Oh Ben, you dog, you.

Exhibit 4: "Someday You Will Be Loved" (Plans): "You'll be loved, you'll be loved / Like you never have known. / The memories of me / Will seem more like bad dreams, / Just a series of blurs / Like I never occurred. / Someday you will be loved."

A second one on the same album! Looks like success is going to Ben Gibbard's head, eh? This one at least comes off as apologetic. Some of the other songs seem to be about Ben feeling sorry for himself because he's been a jerk again. At least here, he's finally contemplating the effect he has on other people. But he's still a jerk.

To the extent that there's heartbreak for Ben rather than the girl in Death Cab love stories, it's always mutual. Like I mentioned, "Summer Skin" is a mutual end-of-summer-fling situation. "Title and Registration" specifically says that "there's no blame for how our love did slowly fade." "Brothers on a Hotel Bed," while plenty depressing, is about two people falling out of love with each other, not just one. The only song, at least from the last three albums, that I can identify where Ben is the sole loser in the break-up is "A Lack of Color." No wonder it's Seth Cohen's favorite.

So there you have it: Death Cab is not emo. It is faux-mo. It is post-emo.

1 comment:

Jesse said...

I see we've returned to the long form entry... and it was all going so well.