Death Cab For Cutie are an indie-rock quartet with a reputation for tightly structured pop songs. Their excellent The Photo Album avoids this legacy; at first listen, it sounds uncomfortably unlike the Death Cab For Cutie we thought we knew. Fans used to quick, catchy songs, as seen in last year's We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, will be surprised by the songwriting: the band never rushes indeed, it sometimes waits to reach the chorus. The Photo Album is evidence of a band that's maturing, slowing down and trying new things.
Trying new things doesn't mean tinkering with their sound. Death Cab For Cutie have earned a following for their guitar-based indie-pop with densely layered, refreshingly melodic songs. As the band matured, their songs became more sophisticated, more complex; adding to the sense that their sound was gaining weight, the music sounded loaded with tricks. Surprisingly, Death Cab's new songs are simple and refined, emotionally open and inspiring. The production sounds closer to the vocals and the instruments, and as a result the songs are more mobile and experimental, going to odd places and catching us unaware.
Lead singer Benjamin Gibbard is the album's keystone. His voice, an earnest falsetto, has been obscured on earlier albums; here, though, it's given open space to roam. When he sings "I don't mind the weather/ I've got scarves and caps and sweaters" on "Blacking Out the Friction," his voice has a buoyant confidence, without self-doubt or pity. "Why You'd Want to Live Here" is one of the album's best songs, its lashing rhythm section and unrestrained melody adding impact to Gibbard's invective on Los Angeles. When he sings, "We are not perfect but we should try," we're convinced.
Death Cab's previous releases are consistent: each has some perfect songs and some that fall short. None are bad, but even the strongest recordings sound like everyone was trying really hard to get them right. The new tracks are poignant and irreplaceable, as if the band walked into the studio with each song already composed, recorded the album in an unbroken marathon, and got out before they had any second thoughts. Snapshots in a photo album of a band in its prime.