Now here’s the Pacific Northwest indie rock classic that should’ve been called Keep It Like A Secret.
We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes celebrated its 20th birthday this past weekend. Death Cab For Cutie’s second full-length is a concept record that traces the arc of a doomed relationship (are there any other kind?), one filled with furtive glances, embarrassing habits, shameful life choices, deeply harbored grudges, and emotional facades that are nearly impossible to keep up within a local social scene where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Seven months later, Death Cab would release a companion collection featuring the immortal “Photobooth,” a song where a kiss in the titular, confidential space serves as incontrovertible proof of a tryst disavowed in public; the EP itself was called Forbidden Love. My first encounter with We Have The Facts occurred at my college radio station where I saw a burned CD with the following, handwritten sticker affixed: “RIYL Built To Spill, Modest Mouse, moping” — fitting for an album meant to be passed on like a note from a friend.
Death Cab’s phenomenal success warrants an entire chapter in Greg Kot’s Ripped: How The Wired Generation Revolutionized Music, an exegesis on how the internet shaped the music industry in the 2000s. In contrast to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or the Black Kids, also surveyed in Ripped, Gibbard presumes the relatively primitive internet of the late ’90s and early 2000s worked to the band’s advantage, moving too slowly to generate more success and acclaim than Death Cab could handle at any time. I can’t think of any band that leveled up more incrementally and more often than Death Cab did throughout their first 10 years — Something About Airplanes put them on the map, We Have The Facts became their critical breakthrough, The Photo Album spawned their first true hit, Transatlanticism was their commercial breakthrough that capitalized on the Postal Service, their major-label debut Plans earned them a Grammy nomination, and Narrows Stairs was their first album to debut at #1.
But, as Kot points out, “the path out of poverty-level subsistence was painfully slow” prior to We Have The Facts. Gibbard made ends meet working at a Bellingham oil refinery. Chris Walla moved back in with his parents. “On tour, the band was making $50 a night, barely enough to cover fuel expenses to the next town.” Eight years later, “an average night’s work for the band was $116,000 in revenue,” adding up to a yearly total of $5.4 million in 2006.
Reflecting upon We Have The Facts’ “The Employment Pages,” Gibbard said, “This song is about the transition of going from idyllic, easy, college-town living, to trying to become an adult for some reason, but you’re not quite sure why.” (Coincidentally, the next track on the album is called “For What Reason.”) He spends “The Employment Pages” fruitlessly searching for work and finding blips of solace and satisfaction in the belief that they and a few others had in Death Cab For Cutie. “It’s so appropriate, the way we amplify the sound,” Gibbard moans, and … appropriately, it’s barely amplified at all, the sound of post-grad anxiety moving at the numbed pace of a hungover morning. Adding insult to injury, the neighbors ask them to keep it down in the very next line — imagine Death Cab For Cutie circa 2000 being too loud for your neighborhood.
Maybe “Title Track” is a tribute to those neighbors. The first minute or so of We Have The Facts is run through a low-pass filter, like it’s being heard through a thin apartment wall. And even when the EQ fills out for the “drop,” Death Cab still play with restraint, like they’re concerned about getting a noise violation they can’t afford. While Walla has called We Have The Facts his favorite Death Cab record, I can’t say for certain that this is his best production job — Transatlanticism and Foxing’s Nearer My God are two of this century’s most luscious and vividly-produced indie rock albums, and the leap in fidelity on The Photo Album is proof of how much he learned in just a year’s time. But this is the one with the most distinct sonic character, everything obscured by a mid-fi mist, the pine scent of the Pacific Northwest and gin breath. “My memory could not recall, a wave of alcohol” from “Title Track” about sums up the unreliability of Gibbard’s narrator.
It was easy enough to know what Death Cab were about prior to We Have The Facts: a band from the Pacific Northwest playing sad and slow music, maybe one day capable of emerging from the shadow of Built to Spill or Modest Mouse, their most frequent comparisons at that point. But unlike those bands, Death Cab had no roots in hallowed local institutions like K or Up Records, no direct connection to the revolutionary fervor drummed up in Portland or Olympia. While Gibbard’s lyrics tended to more mundane concerns than the more cosmically-minded Doug Martsch and Isaac Brock, even he’s claimed that he can’t make heads or tails of the lyrics on their proper 1998 debut Something About Airplanes, falling victim to a common trope of young songwriters exaggerating and obscuring the underlying emotional tenor with clever wordplay.
Immediately after We Have The Facts, Gibbard would shift towards a more novelistic approach to songwriting, one that fostered the band’s longevity at the expense of intimacy. Many of the themes and images that struck so true here would be revisited on later albums with lower stakes: a shared cigarette consecrates an intimate conspiracy on We Have The Facts’ “Title Track,” while on The Photo Album’s introductory number, it’s a minor detail. Though “Cath…” towers over most of what followed for Death Cab after Narrow Stairs, I still can’t help but feel like the skepticism Gibbard’s narrator expresses over the institution of marriage is nowhere near as committed as it was on “Company Calls Epilogue.” “I’d squeeze my heart through a fingertip/ But I type too slow to make expressions stick,” he jokes on “Company Calls,” ironic in light of the Postal Service’s origin story, and yet more resonant than his subsequent critiques of modern communication on “Information Travels Faster” and “Monday Morning.”
Even when Ben Gibbard was writing from a clearly fictional perspective, his voice and writing style — complete sentences that some always find themselves fitting into sing-song melodic cadence without spilling over — are so idiosyncratic that it’s always assumed the guy you’re hearing at least looks like Ben Gibbard (or likes Death Cab For Cutie). This is particularly glaring in light of the way Gibbard writes about physical intimacy, and the guy really does write a lot about sex for a supposedly wimpy-ass band. Take the first verse of “405”:
I took the 405 and drilled a stake down into your center
And stated that it’s never ever been better than this
I hung my favorite shirt on the floorboard
Wrinkled up from pulling, pushing, and tasting, tasting
As with “Tiny Vessels” or “We Looked Like Giants,” there’s a violence in Gibbard’s writing that pales when compared to say, the Weeknd’s new album, but at least it warrants comparison in the first place. In fact, it’s not all that different from the kind of aggro LiveJournalism that got Taking Back Sunday and Saves The Day reflexively shat on around the same time. But it was to be expected of the latter two, more appropriately situated in pop-punk and emo — the vocals were whiny, the guitars were slick and distorted, providing a coherent presentation of needy, adenoidal masculinity. During “For What Reason,” Gibbard sighs, “In the end, I win/ As ink remains/ Sour tastes prevail as you play back the tape machine,” delivering his words in a librarian’s tone under gently braided, clean guitars and lightly crusted drum machines. These choices mask how closely it resembles the kind of sentiment that Drake has expressed dozens of times — in broken relationships, winners don’t necessarily get to write the history, the writers get to win history.
“For What Reason” is hardly an outlier on We Have The Facts. “Red wine and cigarettes, hide your bad habits underneath the patio,” Gibbard mocks on “405,” and even though he’s the one in the midst of an alcoholic summer, “you keep twisting the truth.” “Little Fury Bugs” bitterly reflects on his false friends and their false pretenses — “You’ll discover that casual friends/ Kept notes in their pockets to remember your name/ And all these places we went to see sights/ Just gave them excuses to get into the game.” He steals the plastic figurines on his ex’s wedding cake on “Company Calls Epilogue,” the event itself a “white routine to be ingested inaccurately.” We Have The Facts is undoubtedly a classic, but one from a perspective that’s undergone more scrutiny of late — an early-2000s archetype defined by High Fidelity, The O.C., or Garden State, where a supposed nice guy turns out to be as much of a jerk as the jocks.
I’ll assume that We Have The Facts was never meant as an endorsement of this perspective — in light of Gibbard advocating for sobriety and ultramarathons in Men’s Health, this isn’t an era remembered all too fondly. “They’re all kinda devastating at that age, aren’t they?” Gibbard joked in Ripped about the breakups that inspired his early work. In one of his recent quarantine concerts, Gibbard warmly revealed the inspiration behind the album title — a local musician wore a T-shirt bearing the slogan, affixed to a proposed piece of legislation in Nebraska, the sort of ironic clothing choice that indie rock kids regularly made in 1999. It is a cool phrase, but more importantly, a newfound reminder of the circumstances that make We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes utterly unique in Death Cab’s canon — an opportunity to remember that brief period of time where they were just guys in Seattle’s indie rock scene making songs to be shared like whispers among friends.