I was facing a tough call. Do I review Transatlanticism or Plans? Both works are certainly worthy of a classic music review. Do I go with their last indie release or the one that was recorded for a major label and (yecch) nominated for a Grammy? Regular readers know that I believe the Grammy is the kiss of death for many a promising artist, and so all my prejudices should have programmed me to go with Transatlanticism.
But the truth is, I like “Marching Bands of Manhattan” better than “The New Year” as an opening cut, so I decided to review Plans.
Plans is also the more courageous work because much of it deals directly or indirectly with mortality, not something our death-defying, health-conscious culture wants to deal with. For many Americans, death is not a natural occurrence, but something you should be ashamed of if it happens to you. You either ate too much, smoked too much, drank too much, didn’t get enough exercise, bought a house near a power transformer, spent too much time on your ass or allowed yourself to succumb to stress because you were too worried about your health and you never allowed yourself to have a good time eating, drinking and smoking. Whatever you did, it was your fault and you should be thoroughly embarrassed that you croaked off.
What Ben Gibbard and his mates do in Plans is correct that distorted perception of a natural and often unfortunate human occurrence. We make plans as if we are going to live forever, hoping to forestall the appearance of the Grim Reaper by dreaming dreams and making appointments. This isn’t silly, it’s human. We don’t want to admit the existence of death because we want to live, even if that life depends upon a tiny thread of hope. Our plan-making tendencies carry with them a certain childlike poignancy, and this feeling is captured extraordinarily well in Plans. It’s one thing to tell ourselves, “We’re all going to die someday,” but quite another thing to look at the possibility as something very real, and many of the songs contrast the fleeting nature of childhood, relationships and vibrant life with the inevitable reality of death.
“Marching Bands of Manhattan” opens this exploration of the human experience with the sound of a church organ and unusual imagery describing love and relationships:
If I could open my arms
And span the length of the isle of Manhattan,
I’d bring it to where you are
Making a lake of the East River and Hudson
If I could open my mouth
Wide enough for a marching band to march out
They would make your name sing
And bend through alleys and bounce off all the buildings.
There is a great deal of romantic-idealistic imagery in Plans, expressing our deepest emotions and fears and touching the spiritual aspects of life. The latter is beautifully expressed in the opening verse of the next song, “Soul Meets Body.”
I want to live where soul meets body
And let the sun wrap its arms around me
And bathe my skin in water cool and cleansing
And feel, feel what its like to be new
The vocals paired in octave here are very effective over the tight rhythm from drums, bass and acoustic guitar; the music moves effortlessly in support of the poetry. But even here the specter of the ultimate separation is present:
And I do believe it’s true
That there are roads left in both of our shoes
But if the silence takes you
Then I hope it takes me too
“Summer Skin” takes us back to childhood, reminding us that we were much closer to life’s fundamental truths in the simplicity of childhood. The drums here are almost like a military funeral march, as we say goodbye to lost innocence. The darker mood continues in “Different Names for the Same Thing,” which deals with the failure of language to capture experience; instead, we come up with different names to express what we are unable to express in language and through categorization.
There is no doubt about what is being expressed in “I Will Follow You into the Dark.” It is the dread and defiance of the ultimate separation, the loss of deeply sweet but ephemeral intimacy:
No blinding light or tunnels to gates of white
Just our hands clasped so tight
Waiting for the hint of a spark
If Heaven and Hell decide
That they both are satisfied
Illuminate the NO’s on their vacancy signs
If there’s no one beside you
When your soul embarks
Then I will follow you into the dark
The song is recorded simply, only Ben Gibbard and an acoustic guitar, and is a masterpiece of stark beauty.
“Your Heart is an Empty Room” and “Someday You Will Be Loved” both explore the repeated and often unfair or unnecessary appearance of loneliness in our lives. The question both songs pose has to do with why we sometimes choose the loneliness we dread, one of the most fundamental paradoxes of human nature. Why do we so often huddle behind our defenses when what we really want is to love and give love? Coming after the emotionally defiant “I Will Follow You into the Dark,” the arrangement of songs is a brilliant expression of the fundamental paradoxes of human nature, which in turn fuel our strange relationship with life and death. Our passionate desire to defy death sometimes means we fail to live the lives we have.
A brief passage of relief follows in “Crooked Teeth,” as Ben describes a relationship based on wishful thinking (“Cause you can’t find nothing at all, If there was nothing there all along). This upbeat number is a necessary diversion to prepare us for the magnificent but difficult masterwork, “What Sarah Said,” with its incredibly moving and direct opening verse:
And it came to me then that every plan is a tiny prayer to father time
As I stared at my shoes in the ICU that reeked of piss and 409
And I rationed my breaths as I said to myself that I’d already taken too much today
As each descending peak on the LCD took you a little farther away from me
Whether or not you agree with the conclusion that “love is watching someone die,” you have to admit you have heard art at its courageous best. The song is performed with Death Cab’s usual discipline and excellent taste, with a piano passage for the ages. The musicianship on this cut is outstanding, expressing the nervous tension of the waiting room through slightly elevated rhythm and a slight edge to the piano that falls to a moment of relative stillness before the beautifully-arranged musical peak that fades to thin organ and fading piano.
It would be impossible to end an album with something as gut-wrenching as “What Sarah Said,” so we have two additional songs, “Brothers in a Hotel Bed” and “Stable Song.” “Brothers” is the stronger of the two, reinforcing the perception that Ben Gibbard is brilliant when it comes to metaphor: the image of brothers in a hotel bed, sleeping back to back but with definite space in between, is a powerful metaphor for the traditions that serve to separate us from each other.
Plans is an album to be heard in a single setting, with the person closest to you at your side. Afterwards, you can talk about what is really important in life and leave behind the pettiness and trivia for a few blessed hours. Despite its unrelenting air of sadness for the human condition, I always feel more alive after listening to Plans, perhaps because I feel that someone has given me the gift of honest artistic expression about something that is never very far from one’s mind but is rarely discussed, even with those we love most.