Photo Credit: Jimmy Fontaine / Courtesy of Atlantic Records
Since their 1998 debut album Something About Airplanes Bellingham, Washington alternative rockers Death Cab for Cutie at least outwardly appear to have missed out on mainstream success, even though four of their albums went Top 10 in the U.S. between 2005 and 2015. The band’s tenth full-length album starts out on the right foot with at least a clever title, Asphalt Meadows. The album itself is – as the first part of that name might indicate – at least solid.
“I Don’t Know” is a decent enough opener, a mellower song that periodically rocks out jack-in-the-box style mostly at the right moments (melody-wise, the song bears an unmistakably close resemblance to the Police’s 1980 track “Voices Inside My Head”). This sets up the album nicely, which is comprised largely of synth rock, quite a bit of which is not too dissimilar from a lot of what we’ve heard so far in the twenty-first century from bands like the War on Drugs.
Several other tracks on Asphalt Meadows deserve credit at least for being marginally ambitious, even if end results are somewhat mixed. This includes “Foxglove,” a spoken word track that is backed by a (we assume intentionally) repetitious melody. Named after a famous map company, the bouncy mid-tempo “Rand McNally” ponders how we all tried to figure out just where we were going – geographically and in life – before smartphones told us (“Rand McNally atlas // Now I wouldn’t know how to use one // With my life at stake”).
“Pepper” is specifically a Beatles tribute, as least lyrically: “Sargent Pepper with the faces of friends // But the names all allude you in the end.” Death Cab for Cutie does, after all, take their name from the WTF phrase which appeared in the Fab Four’s 1967 TV movie Magical Mystery Tour, although the tight and catchy song itself quite frankly sounds a bit more like Fountains of Wayne. “I Miss Strangers” is another good one, which addresses what we all went through during the isolation prompted by the pandemic (“These days I miss strangers // More than I miss my friends”). This is not an unsurprising sentiment, perhaps, coming from rock musicians, people whose lives are typically defined by playing in front of many whom they’ve never seen before and never will again.
“Never Give Up” is a strong enough album closer which features just a hint of Led Zeppelin’s classic “Kashmir” but is overall much closer to ’80s new wave. Having opened Asphalt Meadows with a song resembling a particular Police track, it’s sort of full-circle with the closer “I’ll Never Give Up on You” as some of the lyrics (“I’ve given up on every politician… ”) and even the title very closely echo those of Sting’s 1993 solo hit “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You.” But will Asphalt Meadows inspire listeners to retain their faith in Death Cab for Cutie? If nothing else, the band is as tight and solid as ever: lead singer Ben Gibbard still vocally plays the classic everyman to a T, while guitarist Dave Depper, bassist Nick Hammer, keyboardist Zac Rae, and drummer Jason McGerr all deliver more than solid performances. Asphalt Meadows is/are at least worth a visit.