What’s the best Death Cab For Cutie album? If you favor the band’s early era, when they were just some articulate indie kids from Bellingham navigating a bleary fog of emotion, maybe you’d name 2000’s sophomore release We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes. If you favor superstar Death Cab, the alternative radio mainstays rendering those same deep feelings in shimmering hi-fi, you might cite their 2003 breakthrough Transatlanticism or 2005’s major-label debut Plans. Personally I’ve always preferred the one that falls in between those phases, released 20 years ago this Saturday. It’s called The Photo Album, and it’s the sound of DCFC coming into focus.
Like their Pacific Northwest indie rock forebears turned O.C.-era rock-star peers Modest Mouse and Built To Spill, Death Cab were wildly prolific in their early years. The Photo Album arrived just 18 months after We Have The Facts; in between, the band released their fan-beloved Forbidden Love EP, featuring “Photobooth,” universally heralded as one of Death Cab’s finest tracks. (Confusingly, “Photobooth” is not on The Photo Album.) They seemed to be making giant leaps in visibility with each successive release, too, years before Seth Cohen ever uttered their name — though, to keep things in perspective, in early 2002 they were still obscure enough to launch a co-headlining jaunt with the Dismemberment Plan, the ingeniously titled Death And Dismemberment Tour.
Although ace sideman Chris Walla maintained his role as producer, as he would for all Death Cab albums up through his departure in 2014, The Photo Album marked the band’s first venture into a proper studio after years of mid-fi home recording. You can immediately hear the difference on the sparse, gentle opener “Steadier Footing,” and you can really hear it when the appropriately cinematic arrangementment for “A Movie Script Ending” rumbles to life. That song would also yield Death Cab’s first music video, though an old interview with Georgetown’s student paper suggests it was preceded by a homemade clip for “I Was A Kaleidoscope” that has since been wiped from the internet.
It’s not just that the band was edging into the trappings of a professional music career. They were also writing bigger, catchier, more visceral songs. Ben Gibbard’s lyrics were growing less oblique, and rather than drowsily drifting through the music, his boyish tenor was now beaming brightly atop the mix. The guitar riffs were just as hooky — dipping and diving, tying knots and pulling ripcords. Beyond the emo-adjacent lead work, Gibbard and Walla were figuring out how to use their pedal boards to create faint shading and massive swells of beauty. “Blacking Out The Friction” and “Coney Island” deployed keyboards like falling snow. Multiple reviewers cited “We Laugh Indoors” as evidence of creative progression, what with all those textures lurking at the edges of Michael Schorr’s cracking uptempo drumbeat. And if they hadn’t yet graduated to the lighters-up world-conquering hugeness of “Transatlanticism” — “Come ooooooooon!” and all that — the wordless “ba-ba” melody that carries “Styrofoam Plates” to its conclusion is a clear forebear for fearlessly accessible fare like “The Sound Of Settling.”
Yet the quirkiness remained. If Death Cab rocked harder now, they were still plenty soft, in no small part thanks to Gibbard. His delicate delivery and “five-dollar words” helped to define the sensitive, erudite indie guy archetype that would prove to be extremely lucrative onscreen for the next decade, no matter how specious it may have been. Gibbard was out here penning bookish indie-pop lyrics about “scarves and caps and sweaters” and girls named Guinevere. The literary quality extended to his gift for powerful storytelling: I was surprised to learn that “Styrofoam Plates” — an increasingly fiery rant about a deadbeat father who is being falsely lionized at his funeral, which climaxes with “He was a bastard in life, thus a bastard in death” — was not autobiographical. We do learn quite a bit about Gibbard through his lyrics, though, including factoids that would take on deeper meaning down the line. His fascination with old-fashioned correspondence on “Information Travels Faster” would pay off two years later when he and Jimmy Tamborello made a whole album through snail mail (and called it, of course, the Postal Service). And perhaps the anti-Los Angeles screed “Why You’d Want To Live Here” was an omen that his later marriage to Hollywood actor Zooey Deschanel would not last.
Gibbard could be scathing on those first few Death Cab releases, but bitterness is not the main mood I detect throughout The Photo Album. Its songs course with excitement. They sound like a band figuring out just how great they can be, teeming with possibility, repeatedly translating all that potential energy into kinetic payoff. These guys were going places, but not without first paying homage to where they came from. Rarely have Death Cab been more potent than on “A Movie Script Ending,” their song about the emotional whiplash of returning to Bellingham after touring only to find themselves right back out on the highway. The track is littered with allusions to the group’s hometown, to the streets they walked and the barstools where they perched. The air on Railroad, the shop fronts on Holly — this is the world Death Cab For Cutie were forged in. They had already transcended it by The Photo Album, but no one knew at the time just how much farther they’d go.