Plans is the fifth album by Death Cab for Cutie, yet in many ways it is an album of firsts. It’s their first on a major label, the first with the same line-up as their previous record and the first since their appearance (and endless name checks) on smash teen drama, The OC. This combination of change, continuity and mainstream breakthrough could have led to a shift in musical direction and production, a stagnant reproduction of their last album or a dozen cynically made sure-fire pop hits designed to invade the charts. Which is it to be?
The answer, predictably, lies somewhere in between. Plans is an album that moves subtly away from the Death Cab of old, but is instantly recognisable, retains idiosyncrasy and is catchy enough to build on those first tentative footholds in the mainstream. It distinguishes itself from their back-catalogue by its dense textures; the sound is deeper, and bigger.
First single Soul Meets Body shimmers with glossy production, and it’s clear that Death Cab are no longer to be regarded as a cultish band with just a handful of ‘more indie than thou’ fans. No, the majority of this album carries itself with a demand to be heard by a far wider audience. Brooding opener Marching Bands of Manhattan, the melancholia of Your Heart Is An Empty Room and album highlight, What Sarah Said, wouldn’t sound out of place on Coldplay‘s X&Y, such is the high polish of guitarist/producer Chris Walla’s work.
Yup, this is a talented bunch indeed. Ben Gibbard is as distinctive a lyricist and vocalist on Plans, as ever before. I Will Follow You Into the Dark mixes lyrics about love and loss, a recurring theme of the album, some of which is pretty clearly autobiographical. Gibbard’s stream of consciousness lyrics and gentle voice frequently disobey the verse/chorus mould which leads to some genuinely interesting songs, which are also a pleasure on the ears – the lilting summer tune of Crooked Teeth is a particularly vibrant case in point, and rescues the listener from the anomalous mire of the previous track, Someday You Will Be Loved. One can only hope the over earnest lyrics were supposed to be ironic. Cringe at will, and then skip to the next track.
Aside from this blip, Plans maintains a pretty high quality throughout. Long term fans of Death Cab will be pleased to note that it isn’t all dramatic production and over-earnest lyrics. Much of the quirky charm of their previous albums remains, in for instance Brothers On a Hotel Bed, and a reworking of an old number, Stable Song. This is certainly an album of progression that is likely to win the band plenty of new fans, but it shouldn’t alienate their fanbase either.
So, in musical terms, some things have changed and some remain the same. The result is a rather fine, creatively mature album. Whether Death Cab are destined for stardom remains to be seen, but for the time being, Plans both continues their run of very good albums and will serve as an excellent introduction for many to a consistently interesting and very listenable band.