By Lysa Legros
The alternative rock band Death Cab for Cutie released their 10th studio album, ‘Asphalt Meadows,’ on Sept. 16. The five-piece band, made up of singer-songwriter Ben Gibbard, bassist Nick Hammer, drummer Jason McGerr, and keyboardists and guitarists Dave Depper and Zac Rae, has released an album that is existential, introspective, and a touch hopeful.
Across its 11 tracks, Gibson reflects upon the band’s 25-year history by telling a story about a man who struggles with self-doubt and a melancholic romance. As the speaker affirms his affection for his lover and regains his footing in a swiftly changing world, the band illustrates how they have remained committed to their craft and stayed relevant over the years.
The first two songs on the album, “I Don’t Know How I Survive” and “Roman Candles,” introduce the speaker’s anxiety. In “I Don’t Know How I Survive,” his ears ring with “the scrambled voices of [his] fears” and his racing heartbeat. He paces around his bedroom, trying to regain his breath and his lover sleeps, but his unease only grows. As falls into a nervous spiral, Gibson sings, “These nights I don’t know how I survive, these nights, I don’t know how I survive.” His trepidation is punctuated by the swift change in instrumentation, as gentle arpeggios explode into gritty baselines and piercing riffs. In “Roman Candles,” the speaker attempts to reel in his worries, but they are like coffee he drinks each morning. There is “a hint of sweetness, but the bitterness remains.” The speaker is learning to let go of his uncertainty and other unresolved emotions, so they do not explode “like roman candles.” However, at the same time, he can’t help but compare himself to his peers who “[are] moving, as [he is] standing still.” The combination of the exploding baseline, pulsing riffs and surging synths create a song that is especially climatic.
“Asphalt Meadows” is both the title track and the album’s linchpin. As “Asphalt Meadows,” introduces the LP’s motif of travel, it also merges the speaker’s search for fulfillment with his love for his partner. The two ride “a wave of white noise beneath the city sleeping,” in search of the “light through the concrete.” The lovers share a kiss that is like a “lonely prayer,” and the speaker contemplates his desire to know more about his lover. He is only familiar with “half” of her, but he desires to “disappear into the underside of [her] beauty” and learn more. The harmonization of the punchy snares, muted synths and piano create a sense of momentum that evokes the movement of the train the couple rides.
The next song, “Randy McNally,” continues the story of “Asphalt Meadows.” The speaker and his lover stop at a payphone in Houston. As she calls her mother, he attempts to read an old Randy McNally atlas. Still, they are chasing the light. The speaker promises, “I won’t let the light fade,” and follows it into the dawn.
“This is my life’s work. When members leave bands, they're often seminal members. That fans continue to support them is a testament to how important the music is to them. I wanted to write something to and for everyone who has been in this band, who helped make it what it is, to say I'm not going to let the light fade," Gibbard said to Atlantic Records.
In “Here to Forever,” the speaker ruminates upon movies from the ‘50s. Although the performances of the actors still resonate with the speaker, they also make him uneasy because all of the actors have passed away. He wants to leave a legacy and he wants to “know the measure from here to forever,” but he is also deeply aware of his own mortality. He copes with his anxieties by hoping that eventually, he will find his purpose. Poppy instrumentation keeps the song upbeat despite dour lyrics.
“Foxglove Through the Clearcut” is a unique song because it is part-spoken word poem, part-song and part-sonic delight. The speaker describes a man he knew who lived by the ocean but was afraid to swim in it because “the water was always in motion.” After driving across America, the man stopped at his coast and found that “there was nowhere left to go.” While he and the speaker observe a foxglove that has taken the place of a forest, the speaker asks, “For what is a funeral without flowers?” As the lyrics describe how the pursuit of manifest destiny ravaged Native American communities and harmed the environment, the rippling bass and trilling riffs propel the song forward.
As the speaker continues his journey, he reflects upon his life.
In “Pepper,” he discusses the transience of the present. He tells his lover to take a picture because that’s the closest she’ll ever get to re-experiencing that moment. The memory won’t last, and even if the picture is just “a version of the truth,” at least it is something to hold onto.
In “Fragments from the Decade,” he studies an old photograph of himself and his family. The moment captured in the photograph has long passed, and yet it almost seems perfectly preserved. The people “almost seem alive, too beautiful and helpless to survive.” The past was not perfect, but at times it can seem almost easier to comprehend than the present, where he walks in a place he does not belong. The instrumentation mirrors the contrast between the speaker’s past and present. The plodding percussion echoes time steadily moving forward, while the twinkling synths mirror a rosy view of the past.
The album concludes with the triumphant “I’ll Never Give Up on You,” where amidst a discordant baseline, a curling guitar riff, and an undulating piano, Gibson sings, “I’ve given up on aspiration, and I’ve given up on ever being cool […] but I’ll never give up on you.” In the final song, the two themes of legacy and romance come together. Just as the album’s speaker will never give up on his lover, the band will never abandon their passion.
“I think we kind of see ourselves as — if I could be so bold — a little bit like elder statesmen,” Gibbard told DIY Magazine. “I’m a lifer, we’re [all] lifers; this is what we do for a living. I mean, I think about our legacy every once in a while, but I want us to be the best version of what we are and what we have been as long as humanly possible.”