Death Cab for Cutie is a band that embodies change. From the light-hearted melancholy of "Photobooth" to the heavy-handed post-marital blows of "Cath...", Death Cab have shown us hundreds of ways in which circumstances shift and we find ourselves to be different people when the light changes. We might discover newfound strength through the pains of a broken heart. We might find freedom in the lightness of loss. There might be a strange solace in watching everything you thought you knew burn down to the ground. Death Cab have never been a sad band. Rather, they are a contemplative one, one that doesn't want to take the changing of the guard lightly. More than ever, this concept seems to theme the band's upcoming Spring return, Kintsugi. "Kintsugi" is the Japanese process of fixing broken pottery with gold powder, making the cracked and bruised piece more magnificent than the original - how this isn't already a Death Cab record, it seems uncanny. But as the band (and their fans) see the departure of Chris Walla to new adventures outside of Death Cab, Ben, Nick, and Jason venture further into the unknown to reap a new crop of discoveries where the rest of us might fear to tread. Last Tuesday, Seattle got to witness the first step in this journey: the band's first show without Chris Walla and with the new Kintsugi material. Joined by guitarist Dave Depper (Fruit Bats, Menomena) and keyboardist Zac Rae (My Brightest Diamond, Pedestrian) in the very intimate setting of The Crocodile, with an excellent opening set by Say Hi, Death Cab for Cutie continue their journey through doors unlocked and opened in a shimmering new chapter, tried and tested but laden with gold.Could anyone have picked a better opener for this show than Seattle's own Say Hi? Eric Elbogen and Death Cab have pretty rich history together, with Barsuk roots, both living in the Pacific Northwest, and writing incredible music. At Say Hi's last Seattle date, Ben Gibbard was among the crowd, just chilling with everybody else, enjoying a killer performance. Tonight, things weren't too different. Eric got on stage and did his thing, and whether members of the crowd were old familiars or brand new to his brilliantly unique sound, they loved every second. Eric's 2014 LP Endless Wonder takes a new direction in production, working in mostly synth-pop territory to make heartfelt pop gems like "When I Think About You" pound their way into your heart one bass drum at a time. With the record comes a retroactive synth treatment to Eric's full catalogue, bringing all his timeless winners like "Devils", "Take Ya' Dancin", "November Was White, December Was Grey", and "Blah Blah Blah" into a very danceable new context. Plus, Eric is just a hilarious hype man. "The Internet is full of some very angry people right now", he laughed, "but I, for one, am glad you guys are here". For a crowd who was just excited to be there (tickets sold out in less than three seconds), this dance party was an excellent way to warm the night up for Death Cab's return.
Five men strong, Death Cab for Cutie returned to the stage and started a new chapter with an anchor statement: "I Will Possess Your Heart". The Narrow Stairs single of nine minutes is a driving burn of nothing but pure energy, one with which every Death Cab fan on the planet is familiar and in love with. Hearing Nick Harmer's merciless bass riffing and Jason McGerr's perfectly paced skittering march snare a mile away, you'd still know it was this song. Ben took front and center, throwing all sorts of knobs on his fret board, spacing out the intro guitar solo before passing guitar duties off to Dave and sitting down at the piano. "Oh how I wish you could see the potential, the potential of you and me", Ben sings, and everyone in the Crocodile echoes without a single hesitation. There is no questioning of the potential on stage. Death Cab are back in full form, and it's a glorious moment.
The real moments of tonight's performance came in two flavors. First, it was just an immense pleasure to hear the classics in such an intimate setting. Watching the entirety of the Crocodile explode dancing to "Crooked Teeth", or watching every smiling face sing along quietly to "Title and Registration". The band's setlist (shown below) was heavily geared towards the band's newer material - "Photobooth" from the Forbidden Love EP was the oldest number they played, skipping out on We Have The Facts entirely. But no one in the room was waiting on pins and needles for anything but what the band gave us. The 15 year span of songs presented was plenty.
Second, it was wonderful to see what the band decided to show off with their newly expanded lineup. The band broke out three tracks from their upcoming LP, including the recently released lead single "Black Sun", as well as the album's opener "No Room In Frame" and the seriously scorching rock jam "The Ghosts of Beverly Drive". On its own, "Black Sun" welcomes the band into a new sonic chapter - it's psychedelic, effect heavy guitar tones juxtapose synthesizers and a Rhodes piano for an interesting Death Cab track. The lyrics are a somber mixture, influenced by Gibbard's time living in Los Angeles (now there are two Death Cab LA hate tracks!), surrounded by a poisonous atmosphere of living. The other tracks tread much more familiar sonic territory, expanding on the increasingly driving sounds of Narrow Stairs and Codes and Keys tracks like "Doors Unlocked and Opened". "No Room In Frame" is a massive, warm opener that welcomes Kintsugi into existence in a much more hopeful atmosphere than "Black Sun", whereas "The Ghosts of Beverly Drive" is bent on creating the band's best live number to date. Once the fans are familiar and can rock along to it, we'll see if it succeeds.
But the two perfect Death Cab moments of the night went to two of their strongest live efforts. We heard these paired for the band's live record last year, recorded on the band's 2012 tour with the Magik*Magik Orchestra, and we heard one of the two at the band's Bumbershoot 2013 performance of Transatlanticism in full, but otherwise, set lists have been scant of them for a while. The first was Plans track "What Sarah Said", and the second, of course, was the epic encore closer of "Transatlanticism". There are moments in Death Cab's history where all the stars have aligned to make a truly perfect song, balanced between each of the band's members with seemingly effortless grace. Songs like "I Will Possess Your Heart" and "Why You'd Want To Live Here" do it in a hot-blooded context, seeing Ben and Nick and Jason all rip their respective instruments to shreds in glorious fashion. But with these two, the art is in the details. "What Sarah Said" is such a delicate masterpiece. Jason and Nick work so carefully off each other that you don't want to breathe wrong in case you throw them off their guard. Meanwhile, Ben is pure and unabashed resolve on the vocals, singing quietly "Whose going to watch you die?" over and over again. Here, it's not a morbid statement - it's a call to action to love and be loved by those around you. It's a brilliant moment in the band's catalogue that begs for the more careful attention.
"Transatlanticism" was, in a number of ways, an echo to "What Sarah Said". Where the former saw the band's three long-standing members playing off each other with grace and ease, the set's closer let Dave and Zac into the intimacy for a truly spectacular performance. Dave took over the leading guitar part, as Ben took the piano for the first half of the song. Zac kept the layers and layers of keys flowing as the energy built slowly over a good nine minutes. And after all of the passion and the zeal of this incredible track built to a raging fire, there wasn't a man on stage not drenched in sweat in earnest attempt to destroy their instrument (especially Jason, who, I'm pretty sure did probably break something - that guy pummels the drums). "So come on!!!!" sang Ben, Nick, and Dave, and every member of the audience, all beckoning forward a new chapter for Death Cab for Cutie. Both new and old at the same time, the band doesn't seem to fear the waters in the uncharted seas ahead. And as their long-running fans, we don't either.
Death Cab for Cutie:
The problem with cool stuff is there's always a process by which it becomes uncool. A handful of true artists perfect a craft and then an uncanny number of hackneyed copycats sample bits and pieces out of context and bastardize the whole thing to no end. This is maybe no better exemplified than wit…