All images courtesy of Getty Images/Wiki Commons
By John Siden
The release of 2017’s outstanding record Thank You for Today was followed by a too-long five-year absence – with a caveat – for veteran indie outfit Death Cab For Cutie.
Thankfully, Death Cab has returned with Asphalt Meadows, with the caveat being that in 2019 they did release the Blue EP, and in 2020, they released the Georgia EP, a Bandcamp exclusive covers collection. Aside from that, this is indeed their first full-length since 2017. Glad we got that sorted out.
If one thing is certain, Ben Gibbard and company are an ever-consistent bunch. Upon first listening to Asphalt Meadows, I felt I was taken back a good 10-12 years. It’s a very nostalgic piece of music, like slipping on your favorite sweater or a worn-in pair of shoes. The sounds developed are very soothing and a perfectly comfortable fit. Sure, it sounds pretty much the same as their other records, but that’s not always a bad thing, right? I am sure Seth Cohen would approve.
Asphalt Meadows kicks off with “I Don’t Know How to Survive,” which begins with a heavier beat before the familiar voice of Ben Gibbard starts the proceedings properly. Next, we have “Roman Candles,” the first single, in which Gibbard sings, “A hint of sweetness but the bitterness remains,” summing up the bulk of the record, to be honest. I feel that the lyrics to this track may be one of the most telling he has ever written, and while the song is not long, it packs a punch.
Moving forward, well-placed drums kick in to start the title track, and the vocals quickly follow the rhythms. The sugary sweet melody is there, as usual, latched onto a tried and true Gibbard chorus. And as a bonus, there is a bit of lovely lead guitar work in this song’s latter half, showing that Death Cab is pulling no punches.
Following the title track, we have “Randy McNally,” a more subdued affair with some light fretwork to back up Gibbard’s voice. The second half of the track features some double-tracked vocals, which I found sublime as well. Wrapping up side one is “Here to Forever,” a track that starts with a handy guitar hook, but Gibbard doesn’t wait long to get involved, stamping his reoccurring quiet-loud-quiet dynamic to it.
Arriving at side two, we have “Foxglove Through the Clearcut,” which rolls in via another slow start with some spoken word lyrics hovering over a consistent guitar line. I found the intro intriguing and would say that this track might be the album’s sleeper. It has a brief melodic chorus, but the main focus is the unique spoken word aspect. This said, the guitar work here is lovely and drives the song to perfection, ending with some excellent lead work accented by mild distortion. A nice touch, if I don’t say so myself.
Next, we have “Pepper,” which kicks off with immediate vocals, underscored by acoustic instrumentation. The full band experience comes in after the first verse, and keeping in lockstep with the rest of the album, the track is catchy. Seriously, there is not a single track on Asphalt Meadows that does not contain ear-candy melodies. This leads to “I Miss Strangers,” which has the heaviest beats of any song on the record to this point. And, of course, within less than a minute, we have a catchy chorus to feast our adoring ears on.
Gibbard drops in another classic composition with “Wheat Like Waves,” a song designed to tickle our fancy for all things indie rock. Listening, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a Bon Iver – until the vocals started. Another bonus is that Ben mentions Prefab Sprout, and the lyrics seem to talk a lot about Canada, which I appreciate as a native Canadian. And I’ll try not to be offended when he mentioned how terribly cold it is up here.
After that possible ode to Canada concludes, we come across one of the slower-burning cuts on the record, “Fragments From the Decade.” And while this song is not quite a ballad, it’s not far off either, but I like it just the same. Wrapping up the proceedings is “I’ll Never Give Up on You,” and I honestly enjoyed the consistently urgent beat of this one. The background vocals stand out; halfway through is some soothing piano that makes for a nice bridge. The phrase in the title track is elegantly repeated until the song eventually ends, closing Asphalt Meadows out.
Thinking about it, I think this is my favorite Death Cab For Cutie album since Transatlantisism. Not to disparage the records that have come between, but this is a very strong outing, and in my opinion, there is not a bad track here. It only makes me want to go back into Death Cab’s discography, revisit some old friends, and maybe discover some new ones.
In short, Asphalt Meadows is a full-on return to form from one of the great bands of the last twenty years.