Plans Turns 10
Growing up, I spent a lot of time in hospitals. Most of that time has bled together, a blur of squeaky white floors and fluorescent lights, kind of comfortable but mostly itchy chairs, the lingering smell of antiseptic. One memory that’s always stuck with me is a time that I was listening to Plans in the waiting room. I can’t remember why I was in the hospital that time — if it was shortly after the album came out, or a few years down the line. It’s one of those memories that’s become unmoored in time, representative more of a feeling than a specific date or place. But “What Sarah Said” came on, and I broke down into a blubbering, inconsolable mess. That fucking song. I related to it so deeply in that moment that it felt like it was written for me, or maybe I myself had written it some time long time ago and simply forgotten. Every time I’ve heard it since, I’m dragged back to that waiting room, that time when I let it all bubble over for just a second, and it helps me to feel everything all over again.
My dad died when I was 16, my mom when I was 20, and the years in between and before were spent in waiting rooms like that one, watching my feet hover above the tile until eventually I was tall enough that they touched the floor. My parents would switch off being sick like clockwork, so that I was never really able to catch my footing. Every other month, it felt like there was a new illness to tackle, another hurdle to overcome. Seeing both of them incapacitated for so long, completely out of my control to do anything — it fucked me up. It made me deal with loss in a different way than most. I don’t outwardly show my emotions much, even now, but I use music to help me through. I latch onto albums and songs and burrow in deep and hopefully come out on the other end with some sense of resolve. Often it works, sometimes it falls short, but I’ve always had an easier time relating to other people’s problems than reflecting on my own. Maybe it’s because I’m better with abstraction, maybe it’s not the healthiest way to process things. But it helped me cope. It helped me move on.
Plans is the album I turn to when I’m at my weakest point, when I feel like maybe there’s no greater purpose to it all and need to be assured that that isn’t the case. Ben Gibbard said in an interview that the album was named after his favorite joke: “How do you make God laugh? You make a plan.” You choose to look toward the future, even knowing that what you envision probably won’t work out. You hope against hope that nothing will get in your way, and then course correct when it inevitably does. Maybe that’s the reason this album resonates so strongly with me, because I associate it so closely with a time in my life when I didn’t know where to go next. But you have to go somewhere. You make plans knowing they’ll be dismantled. But you still make them.
Death Cab For Cutie were certainly making more plans than ever before when they signed to Atlantic Records for the release of their fifth record, which turns 10 this coming Sunday. The label’s relationship with the band began a little earlier than that, when they helped fund the music video for Transatlanticism’s “Title And Registration” in an effort to show that they were serious about signing them. From there, it seemed like only a matter of time before the Pacific Northwest four-piece would leave their long-time Barsuk foundation.
It wasn’t the first time that Death Cab had been approached by a major label, but it was the first time that a move from their smaller roots began to feel inevitable. The band was starting to pick up steam in a big way, in ways that a tiny label like Barsuk wouldn’t have had the resources to support back in those days. Some of that popularity undoubtedly can be attributed to their inclusion on The O.C., a show they’d be loosely associated with for a long time after. But most of it had to do with the fact that Transatlanticism was selling a ton of copies, and it made sense that major labels would want a piece of the pie. Death Cab hit the sweet spot, coming up in a time when the internet was instrumental in raising a band’s recognition, but before it really started to impact record sales.
And while Atlantic would give them the financial support they needed to breakthrough to the mainstream, it came with certain consequences. The blog-rock boom of the mid-’00s — which Stereogum was obviously a part of — was suspicious of major label intervention. It was a dirtier word back than, a phrase that was much scarier and carried more weight 10 years ago than it does now. A lot of people I’ve talked to that are a few years older than me view Plans as their break with the band; the point where they stopped connecting with Death Cab’s music and started to view them as a different sort of commercial entity. Even as late as last year, the oft-perceptive Gibbard could sense that they had lost some fans from this earlier period. Here’s what he said in an interview with us:
When Plans came out there were people who really fucking hated it. Everywhere I went during that time it felt like people were giving me shit about it. I’m not complaining, but there are people who heard that record, and heard that it was on Atlantic, and were like, “Fuck this band.” It’s funny. People have strong feelings of ownership — or disownership — of this band, depending on what’s happening with the band at any given time. You can’t control that sort of thing, but I do find it fascinating.
I never really fell into that camp, because when Plans came out I was much too young to place Death Cab in any sort of larger critical or commercial context. I was 13, and I thought it was the best thing ever. I was one of those kids who had heard “A Lack Of Color” on The O.C. soundtrack and took note of the name, bought Plans when it came out because it was this new album from this band that I thought was cool. (And because I had a crush on Seth Cohen.) But it took me a while to dive deep into their back library, to understand that Death Cab was following up what was arguably their magnum opus: Transatlanticism still looms tall over the rest of their records, and now that I’m older I can feel the expectation weighing down on them all throughout Plans.
And that’s what makes it sparkle. The label sent the band to rural Massachusetts to record the album, the first time they put together a record outside of the Pacific Northwest. They spent a month there in isolation, and with that time away, it seems like they unburdened themselves from the fear of not measuring up. They were following up their biggest record, and getting ready to send it out to their largest audience to date. There’s no way it didn’t make them feel apprehensive, and there’s no way they didn’t take some comfort in being sequestered out there in the middle of nowhere. That’s why Plans is the lushest, most up-in-the-clouds album the band has ever made. None of their albums since have come close to the weightlessness of these songs. Separated from what you know, there’s a desire to create new things out of new experiences. And create they did.
Plans is filled with some of the best, most inspired songs of the band’s long career. It’s also filled with some of the worst, at least up until that point. But the thing about Plans is that it’s so much more of a personal album than one that broke any kind of musical ground. It’s a record that will always be tied to when you first heard it. If anything, it’s probably one of the records I love the most that has aged the least well. This was a formative record for me, and thus I’ve grown familiar with and welcome most of its flaws, but there are some damn clunky moments on here — “Your Heart Is An Empty Room” and “Someday You Will Be Loved” in particular. But, thankfully, they never last much longer than a corny line or two. There’s beautiful parts in every song, and the majority of the songs are just straight up-and-down beautiful.
This consistency can be attributed to Chris Walla, whose production skills really started to blossom with this album, mainly because the songs this time around allowed him the space he needed to go really wild. “I’ve always approached each song like it’s its own little thing,” he explained in an interview at the time. “Like the foundation and frame are already there, and it’s my job to put the walls on, and paint and decorate each little piece.” That same article also described the typical day in their rural Plans studio: The band would record for a few hours together, then the other three would go mess around while Walla stayed behind and painstakingly figured out what was working and what wasn’t. That attention to detail shines through, and was well worth the effort. Ten years on, things are still popping out at me that I’d never noticed — I had to pause the beginning of “Brothers On A Hotel Bed” recently, a song that I’ve heard countless times, because I thought the ghostly chimes at the onset of the track were coming from some aimless Youtube tab. Walla’s fastidious nature is why Plans feels so well-worn and insular, despite many of the songs being so large.
And, as ever, Gibbard’s lyrics are a joy to parse. Even when he’s at his most on-the-nose and maudlin, there’s something transcendent about the way he gasps these proclamations of love like he believes it was all worth it in the end. But unlike on albums past, Gibbard was concerned with unpacking the ending of things. Where earlier songs usually seemed to veer off right before the careen off a cliff, these are all written after the dust has already settled. These are songs looking back, examining the fractures in relationships and trying to piece together where things went so wrong. There’s a sense of inevitability to these songs, of mistakes being made in slow motion. The first hook on the whole album is “Sorrow drips into your heart through a pinhole” — that’s bracing yourself for the end. Letting sadness slowly trickle in until there’s nothing left.
Death Cab have always had a wry romantic sense, but rarely was it this fatalistic. “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” — the song that launched a thousand Youtube covers — is commonly misinterpreted as a sweet love song, but reads oppressively bleak. Even the happier-sounding songs carry a heavy burden. Something like “Soul Meets Body” — the closest they got on Plans to capturing the effusiveness of “The Sound Of Settling” — finds no room for hope. Gibbard’s describing the joining of body and mind, but he’s making it clear that there’s only emptiness in between the two: “Where I send my thoughts to far off destinations/ So they may have a chance of finding a place where they’re far more suited than here.” This is no union for any loving, healthy, thriving relationship: “If the silence takes you, then I hope it takes me too” is more a threat than a declaration of devotion.
That same internal battle comes up again on “Crooked Teeth,” the catchiest song on here and their most pointed throwback to their early days of pointed Pacific Northwest rock. (It also happened to be my ringtone for about six months in high school.) Gibbard fights between head and heart and comes up with “nothing all along.” The song is all about life trying to fuck with you, and it hearkens back to Gibbard’s inspiration behind the title of the record: If plans are a joke to God, then why wouldn’t he laughing? And of course that laugh would take the form of a hideous, gap-toothed smirk. And then after that — the catchiest song on the album — comes the most downbeat three track run on any Death Cab record. It’s also, not coincidentally, probably my favorite.
Now, we arrive back at where we started this whole thing: “Love is watching someone die. So who’s gonna watch you die?” “What Sarah Said” finally drowns under the current that every song’s been kicking against this whole time. For me, Plans has never really been about love — it’s been about loss. Of course, a lot if it deals with the loss of love, but death is an altogether different thing. And you can feel the weight of that difference on this song, which has a finality to it, a feeling that you’ll never be able to regain what’s been taken from you. I guess the argument that the album makes is that the same can be said of love. “Brothers On A Hotel Bed” certainly supports that, as it checks in with the progression of a relationship neutralized by time, where what was once a fiery passion is now nothing more than a platonic begrudging. Maybe death and a love lost are very similar, a dull emptiness inside that feels impossible to fill — they’re different names for the same thing.
The album offers a tentative coda with “Stable Song”: “Suffered a swift defeat/ I’ll endure countless repeats/ The gift of memories, an awful curse/ With age, it just gets much worse.” It’s a bleak outlook, but that’s not the note the record decides to close with. Instead, Gibbard adds: “But I won’t mind.” Our life is a series of failed plans. That’s just the nature of the thing. Maybe my parents died for a reason, probably it was just a thing that happened in a series of things that happen. Ultimately, the album says that it’s worth it to keep forging on. That, despite all the obstacles that are thrown at you, you don’t stop making plans.