Death Cab for Cutie on “The Photo Album”
Mar 16, 2017
Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern (for Under the Radar) Issue # 59 - 15th Anniversary
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In April of 2001, the members of Death Cab for Cutie should have been on top of the world. With two acclaimed full-length releases (1998's Something About Airplanes and 2000's We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes) and a growing audience, they had reached the status every upstart band dreams of: they had quit their day jobs to focus solely on their music. But it's never that simple. Burned out from an exhausting tour, they knew their most expedient choice was to go right into guitarist Chris Walla's Hall of Justice Studios and bang out their next release so they could go back out on tour in the fall. They needed to capitalize on the momentum they'd spent the last half-decade building, but in that moment recording new music felt more like an obligation than an opportunity. They had everything but the songs.
"That was by far the most tumultuous record that we've made to date," Gibbard says of 2001's The Photo Album. "As I look back on that album, there are some songs on there that I really love, and there are elements to the record that I really like. But I often think about that record as I didn't really have enough songs to make a better record. There are some songs on that album that I think are really undercooked from my end, just verse/chorus/verse/double chorus/song's over-kind of songs. Not really a lot to them. I look back on that time as probably the lowest point in the band as far as morale went, for sure."
Death Cab was in a period of transition. Drummer Michael Schorr, despite being an able skinsman in every sense, was a poor fit for their sound. Even now, Gibbard says, he can hear "little points of contention" in the album, all of the little compromises the band made in the name of keeping the process moving so they could limp across the finish line. The songs he was writing turned dark. "Styrofoam Plates" was a bitter reprimand for an absent father. "Why You'd Want to Live Here" was a snarky assessment by someone who wasn't exactly impressed with Los Angeles. The album as a whole might not have been quite what Gibbard wanted, but his writing marked a new stage of development for him as an artist.
"I feel that record is a very transitional album for me as a songwriter," Gibbard explains. "When I look back on the first two records, I think I wrote a lot more abstractly. In my mind, I was writing these songs with this descriptive terminology and lyrics that were slightly veiled but that anyone that read them could understand exactly what they're about. And as I go back to those records now, I realize how much more veiled the songs were than I thought at the time. I think since The Photo Album, I've written more directly. In our catalog and in my career as a songwriter, it's a very transitional record, with some moments that are a little more obtuse, but I think the majority of the songs are a bit more straightforward."
That straightforward, confessional writing would become a hallmark of Gibbard's work, and The Photo Album provided him with more opportunities to hone his skills as a melodicist. The crunchy power pop of "I Was a Kaleidoscope" ranks among the band's most immediate singles, just as the lushly tumbling textures and vivid storytelling of "A Movie Script Ending" pointed towards the kinds of songs he'd perfect on Death Cab's next album, 2003's Transatlanticism. Once drummer Jason McGerr officially joined the band the following year, they had the perfect lineup in place to move their music to its next stage. But 15 years later, Gibbard remains conflicted about The Photo Album.
"I know people who that's their favorite album of ours, and I would never try to convince anyone otherwise, but when I think of that in the context of our catalog, it's my second least favorite album," Gibbard concludes. "But making The Photo Album showed us what we didn't want to do ever again. I don't want to make a record because we have to make a record. I don't want to go into the studio with eight songs and try to cobble together two sort-of songs so we can make a 10-song album. I don't want to do that ever again. I want to go in with more songs than we need. I want us to have choices. So in that sense, it was very much a bridge, because we learned what we didn't want to do again."
[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Best of 2016 / 15th Anniversary Issue (January/February/March 2017). This is its debut online. The issue came out in late December 2016 and partially celebrated the 15th anniversary of Under the Radar's first issue, which came out in December 2001, and thus featured articles on albums that also came out in 2001.]
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