Sometimes you hear a hungry, young indie-rock band toughing it out in a small town somewhere, and you just know that this band is destined to take the whole world by storm. Death Cab for Cutie are not one of those bands. In fact, even their biggest fans have to be a bit gobsmacked at their success. On their fantastic 2000 album We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, Death Cab were already masterful, tuneful, resonant upstarts, in full command of their own eccentric guitar-shamble style. But these Bellingham, Washington, indie dudes seemed unlikely to ever go out in public wearing socks that matched, much less find mass appeal. Who thought they'd become high school misfit pinup boys? Who thought Ben Gibbard's melancholic tenor would get airplay, both with Death Cab and his synth-pop side project the Postal Service? Who thought these non-fashion-plates would become muses to The O.C., playing the Bait Shop the way the Flaming Lips once played the Peach Pit on 90210? Just think: If Death Cab had finished this album a little sooner, they could have kept Mischa and Brandon together.
Death Cab broke through with their fourth and finest album, 2003's Transatlanticism. That disc still sounds so great, it's a little scary. Gibbard's emotive singing and guitar found the perfect foil in the production of guitarist-keyboardist Chris Walla, who gave the big pow to songs like "Title and Registration," "Tiny Vessels" and "Transatlanticism," amping up Gibbard's purploid poetics without steamrolling right over him. Also in 2003, Gibbard teamed up with producer Jimmy Tamborello for the Postal Service album, which came out of nowhere to become Sub Pop's biggest seller since Nirvana's Bleach. Not a bad one-two punch.
On Plans, Death Cab's fifth album (and first for a major label), they try hard not to make Transatlanticism all over again. Instead, they reach for an expansive, Abbey Road pop style, with mixed results. The high points are high, just not as high as last time. "Marching Bands of Manhattan" is a great start, with Gibbard chanting, "Your love is gonna drown" over an urgent guitar riff. The single "Soul Meets Body" has an R.E.M.-style jangle, sped up to electro-disco tempo. "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" strips it down to Gibbard's voice and acoustic guitar, which works powerfully for such a starkly emotional love song dealing with the imminence of death. Yet it demonstrates how wise Gibbard is to let the band mess with his pristine melodies, which would sound wispy and ignorable on their own.
Plans flounders in the second half, where Death Cab run out of songs and try to fill the holes with busy keyboard bits. They obviously decided to minimize guitars and emphasize synths, maybe inspired by the success of the Postal Service —after the first two songs, there isn't a memorable guitar part on the whole album. This should have been a fruitful experiment. But mostly it proves they're a guitar band. Unlike the Postal Service, they don't have beats, not even theoretical ones, and these fussy little keyboard frills get incredibly annoying without any rhythmic drive. "Crooked Teeth" is a case where it all goes ass —awful production, cloying melody, chintzy keyboards. "Different Names for the Same Thing" is a good ballad, but the rinky-dink synths turn it into a retread of Madonna's theme from that movie where Joe Pesci plays a homeless guy at Harvard. That probably wasn't the idea.
Gibbard's voice holds Plans together. As always, he indulges his boyish romanticism, more than ever now that he's contemplating mortality and shedding his "Summer Skin." Plans ends up being more erratic than Transatlanticism, still their sharpest so far. There's no reason Death Cab for Cutie shouldn't keep trying to expand their signature sound. But as the strongest moments on Plans prove, their signature sound hasn't run out of things to say yet.