I imagine Ben Gibbard circa 1998 situated under a tree reading Kerouac. A sensitive 20-something in sandals and jeans, probably the brainiest of his friend group. Grounded, but reactive. That August, 20 years ago tomorrow, he would release Something About Airplanes with his newly-assembled band Death Cab For Cutie. When I spoke to Gibbard a few months ago on the 10-year anniversary of Death Cab’s sixth studio album Narrow Stairs, I had a different image in my head: a clean-cut Gibbard still glowing from a morning run, his Seattle home soaked in natural light.
While Death Cab’s development hinged on the talents of not only Gibbard, but of Chris Walla, Nick Harmer, Nathan Good, and later, Michael Schorr, it is — at its core — a personal project. In the two decades since their debut, the band has evolved with Gibbard as their guide. The Bellingham-dwelling Airplanes-era Gibbard was living and working within a different context than the mid-career Narrow Stairs Gibbard of 2008. Of course, his infatuation with Kerouac endured: To write Narrow Stairs, he stayed in the same Big Sur cabin that Kerouac once inhabited. He longed for the novelist’s life on the road, in the midst of a crumbling relationship and a drinking problem. 2018 Gibbard is remarried and runs marathons. His band came out with their new album, Thank You For Today, today.
Narrow Stairs, he recalled during our interview, was the band’s turning point. It cemented the lyricism Gibbard had been striving for: narrative, comprehensible, and vivid. He spoke about Airplanes as if it were an amateur writing exercise, albeit one he remembers fondly. His style was “a lot more impressionistic,” he said. “I was writing those songs in my early twenties…I thought I was being more clear than I actually was.” It’s a familiar fogginess that wafts through Something About Airplanes — a perspective colored by raw emotions you haven’t made sense of yet. Patchy memories of wounds that still feel fresh. Airplanes, along with the few albums that followed, sacrificed the specificity of a story for the rush of a moment. Gibbard would eventually go on to craft poignant metaphors out of glove compartments, city skylines, and twin beds, but Airplanes’ blurry images lent a different kind of clarity.
In 1997, Gibbard sketched out what would become Something About Airplanes in the form of a demo cassette, You Can Play These Songs With Chords, its title as vague and evocative as the ensuing album’s. Anyone can play those songs with chords, just as everyone has their own association with airplanes. The music can be adapted to fit whatever narrative or feeling exists inside the listener.
Gibbard reflected on Airplanes’ opening track, “Bend To Squares,” in a 2008 essay: “What the fuck am I talking about here? This song makes absolutely no sense.” Objectively, that’s a fair assessment. There’s no telling which “machine could only bend to squares five to six times.” But there’s something about the symbols he chose — the way he milked them for meaning and made sounds to match — that hit home for their small but growing fanbase and still burns for Death Cab diehards. Modest plucking and weeping violin strings build and bloom with crashing percussion. “What a way to cut lengthwise” finds its meaning in a cloud of reverb.
For every dense illustration, there’s a phrase or image to latch onto, or a riff that speaks volumes. “Champagne From A Paper Cup” is hazy and dizzying to the point of nausea. It’s feigned maturity and a regrettable drunk night. “President Of What?” paints a messy picture: “I saw the scene unfold on a rainy Sunday / Creases indicating folds that kept four walls from caving in…You drove straight through and mined that quarry…Cause beautiful boys gave chase / And when they arch your backbone.” Pithy remarks in between these flowery descriptions — found in the bridge, “Something’s got to break you down,” and the final verse, “Cause nothing hurts like nothing at all” — tell you everything you need to know without saying much of anything. The bookended line, “I saw the scene unfold,” completes the balance. It repeats in the outro and, later, your brain.
“Fake Frowns” is like kicking dirt and then forgetting what you were angry about in the first place. The lyrics can’t settle on a cogent metaphor. Gibbard connects pinned pictures with yarn like a crazed TV detective. There’s a slim chance of following the case, but clamorous drums and Gibbard, who is almost out of breath, tangle you in the excitement and frustration. Say what you will about convoluted lyricism, these songs make you feel. It also taught me what a magistrate is.
Elsewhere, lyrics are downright goofy. Consider “The Face That Launched 1000 Shits,” which is a cover of a song by Walla and Gibbard’s old band Revolutionary Hydra. Its title is a play on “The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships,” a phrase about Helen Of Troy’s affect on the Trojan War. It’s around this track that you realize the cover art for Something About Airplanes is a rowboat, and it all begins to feel like an inside joke. For a while, only a select few were in on it. If there was a perfect time and place for Death Cab to release their first proper album, it was 1998 in the Pacific Northwest. Regional bands began to slink under the radar on the tail end of Seattle’s mainstream grunge boom. Sounds and styles circulated like secrets — in basements and bars, through mixtapes, zines, and small online communities. Indie labels were thriving, and there wasn’t a need to make music for anyone but yourself and your people, the ones who got the joke.
That sense of privacy and local influence pulses through Something About Airplanes. Gibbard distorts his diary and cloaks it in allegory. The songs are poems that beg annotation and engagement. Intimacy continues to take form in its lo-fi production, courtesy of Chris Walla, and ancestral origins. Melodic, scrappy, muscular guitar work and covertly confessional lyricism calls back to Pacific Northwest forebears (and primary Death Cab influences) Built To Spill. Delicate flourishes cite PNW-bred Elliott Smith, as well as Sunny Day Real Estate’s softer material. Re-listening to Airplanes, now knowing most every word and chord progression, I’m struck by its speed. Songs like “Your Bruise” chug along like a rollercoaster ascending its peak. The descent is still slow, but feels breezy in comparison. “President Of What?” doesn’t really rise or fall — it circles a bumpy track. A woozy organ battles and entwines with an indecisive guitar melody. These winding head-spinners define Airplanes’ course. The album sees Death Cab at their purest, unbothered by media scrutiny or mass appeal. But the framework for their impending mainstream crossover, and the wider indie rock rise, lurks between the lines.
“Pictures In An Exhibition” is the album’s most pop-forward offering. An infectious chorus — “I’m definitely shaking / The silence isn’t breaking” — ingrains itself in jammy riffs and harmonies. Those words sound so personal, like they’re finally being excavated after rumbling around your psyche. The sighing refrain, “He’s unresponsive cause you’re irresponsible,” on “Amputations,” is one thorough polishing away from the early-2000s teen drama soundtrack that Death Cab would later epitomize. “A taste for foreign films and modern plays” on “Bend To Squares” foresees a rising subculture of twee “manic pixie dream girls” á la Gibbard’s ex Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days Of Summer.
Death Cab sharpened with each album after Airplanes. They cleaned up their sound and clarified murky imagery. Themes and ideas grew broader as their lyrics narrowed. Their second album, We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes, hit a sweet spot between Airplanes’ unfussy authenticity and the picturesque detail of their third and fourth albums, The Photo Album and Transatlanticism. As the story goes, Death Cab’s eventual mainstream crossover was met with mixed feelings. Death Cab was featured on the popular television series The O.C. in 2003 and, suddenly, their small-town charm was a thing of the past. They were no longer a secret to be coveted, leading the transition from private to public along with other indie bands like regional neighbors Modest Mouse. Fans feared they’d face the same fate as grunge — overexposed, mutated and commercialized — at the hand of major labels and mainstream pressure.
I imagine Gibbard is, as most of us are, shaped by his environment. The impact of gentrification fell on Seattle just as it fell on indie rock, and Death Cab acclimated. They tailored their tune for new ears and mainstream success. Some of their later albums like 2015’s Kintsugi sound like lucrative chores against Airplanes’ labor of love. But it’s almost unfair to compare Something About Airplanes, born out of brooding young adulthood, to the work coming out of well-to-do, widely-recognized musicians. Something About Airplanes wasn’t primed for radio plays. It operated on a different scale entirely.
Plans, Death Cab’s 2005 major label debut, was my first introduction to the band. Without it, I wouldn’t be privy to the pure, simple splendor of their early discography. Maybe a tight-knit closeness fell through the cracks during indie rock’s crossover. But a new kind of intimacy has taken its place among the listeners who bother revisiting the quiet albums of this era and those who seek out artists transcending today’s popular brand of indie rock. Something About Airplanes still prospers and resonates within a private sphere, one unconcerned with geography or acclaim.