Death Cab for Cutie Return with Melancholic and Beautiful “Asphalt Meadows”
Indie rock icons Death Cab for Cutie released their long awaited tenth studio album, Asphalt Meadows on Sept. 16. This was the band’s first album release in four years, following the 2018 project Thank You for Today. Asphalt Meadows is a dark, brooding and introspective record that deals with changes, nostalgia and existential dread.
Death Cab for Cutie’s name comes from a song of the same name written and performed by The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Death Cab for Cutie started off as the solo project of vocalist Ben Gibbard, with a band eventually forming after he got a record deal. They released their first album in 1998, and have not looked back since, going on to release iconic albums such as Plans and Transatlanticism, which have helped define the indie rock sound of the 2000s. Death Cab for Cutie’s music is quintessentially indie, with mellow guitars and emotionally devastating lyrics that will tug at your heartstrings. The band’s influences include The Beatles, The Cure and Built to Spill. The band has gone on to inspire acts such as Julien Baker and Two Door Cinema Club.
Asphalt Meadows was written remotely during the pandemic over the years 2020 and 2021. Like many other bands around the globe, Death Cab for Cutie was also massively affected by the worldwide cancellation of tours and performances. The writing was done remotely as the band members utilized Dropbox to send files back and forth to one another. They each had creative freedom to take the demos as they far as they wanted to go. This process eventually cumulated in 90 songs, which would later be whittled down to 11 for the album.
Despite being ten albums in, Death Cab for Cutie do not refrain from continuing to experiment with their sound. Asphalt Meadows sees shades of lo fi, post rock and new wave amongst their traditional indie sound. The opener, “I Don’t Know How to Survive”, incorporates a looping keyboard rhythm and various “quiet to loud” transitions with heavy beckoning drums. The track following it, “Roman Candle” has a grittiness to it with some heavy distortion. “Here To Forever” possesses a distinct new wave sound, akin to bands such as Blondie and the Talking Heads.
Lyrically, the album is filled with honest, concise and heartfelt writing. Hearing the album, you can definitely pick up on signs that it was written during a pandemic. Struggling with depression, trying to hold onto the past and existential anguish are strong themes present in the project. “Roman Candle” deals with the struggles of getting out of bed. “I Don’t Know How to Survive” narrates the hardships of continuing on with life when you don’t want to. The titular “Asphalt Meadows” talks about being impossibly stuck in a loop. On “Asphalt Meadows”, Death Cab for Cutie likens the possibility of change occurring as unlikely as growing plants in concrete.
“Rand McNally” and “Fragments from the Decade” are tracks that deal with the crushing sensation that your past is long behind you and try as you might, you cannot return to it. On “Rand McNally”, the band reflect on using an atlas, now a near forgotten piece of equipment, to reminisce on travelling around the country with friends. Ben Gibbard tries his hardest to keep the memory warm and alive, as he repeatedly sings “I won’t let the light fade”. “Fragments From the Decade” has eerie instrumentals attached to it that give it a surreal feeling. The narrator on the song is helplessly lost in the modern day and is reminiscing on a happier past that now seems too good and beautiful to be true.
“Here To Forever” and “Foxglove Through the Clearcut” deal with strong existential dread. On “Here to Forever”, Ben Gibbard muses:
“In every movie I watch from the fifties
There’s only one thought that swirls around my head now
And that’s that everyone there on the screen
Yeah, everyone there on the screen, well, they’re all dead now”.
Our narrator tells us about their obsession with falling in love with dead and decaying things, while begging to find meaning in something. They wish repeatedly that they could feel the pressures and fear of religion.
“Foxglove Through the Clearcut” is the most experimental song on the album. There is spoken word incorporated, with a slight echo onto Ben Gibbard’s voice. The ending of the song explodes into post rock mania with a battering of drums and distortion. Gibbard sings about the duality of being finite as humans living in an infinite world. It can be hard to grasp our head around our significance at times, and in this song, Death Cab for Cutie perfectly capture that feeling.
Despite Asphalt Meadows being a harrowingly bleak album, it does end on somewhat of a happy tone with “I’ll Never Give Up on You”. Ben Gibbard sings about how despite losing faith in “ever being cool”, giving up on drugs and alcohol, and losing inspiration, he still retains faith in this one individual. This could be a friend, a romantic partner, or a child- we are not told. Even in a life that is excruciating and hard to live, our loved ones manage to provide beacons of hope and support along the way.
After a long four-year hiatus, Death Cab for Cutie gives us a beautiful and melancholic album in Asphalt Meadows. It is definitely one of the albums that will have you staring at the ceiling in quiet contemplation, and one who’s effects will stay with you long after you’ve finished listening to it.
Death Cab for Cutie are currently on tour, and you can find tickets on their website. You can follow Death Cab for Cutie on their Instagram and Facebook. You can listen to their music on Spotify and YouTube.