“The last time Ben Gibbard had his heart broken, we got Transatlanticism,” a friend noted as we left the Crocodile, discussing the potential merits of the as-yet-unreleased songs we’d just experienced.
We had gone in hopeful but apprehensive, hoping for the best, but worrying that a post-Chris Walla Death Cab may have lost some vital component. Instead, the band sounded more lush, more full than ever, having replaced the loss of one member with the addition of two. Decade-old songs had more depth than we’d ever heard before. We, the longtime faithful.
I first heard “This Temporary Life” when Death Cab played the 2004 Bumbershoot Mainstage, a night that proved memorable for all sorts of reasons. It’s a deep cut, never released on an Death Cab album, but instead, on a compilation entitled Future Soundtrack for America, which benefitted progressive causes in the midst of the John Kerry vs. George W. Bush election. I remember Gibbard advocating while introducing the song that day, and as best I can tell, they haven’t played it since that tour, a few days after the election ended.
All of which is a little weird, really, because unlike many songs on Future Soundtrack for America, “This Temporary Life” has nothing to do with politics.
Spiritually, “This Temporary Life” serves as a companion to the Postal Service’s “This Place is a Prison”:1 The latter is about a lonely night in a crowd, while the former is about waking up the next morning even lonelier. Knowing the basics of Gibbard’s biography, I assume the song was written about his move from Bellingham to Seattle, but it struck a personal chord with me in those waning months in New York in the winter of 2004-2005.
Musically, the song stands out from any other Transatlanticism-era Death Cab, as well. The female backing vocals alone place the song in a unique place in Death Cab canon, and the shift in guitar tone imbues a slow but steadily growing sense of despair. The first verse seems sweet and innocent: Glancing in on someone else’s pre-dawn routine, a guitar strumming. The second verse shifts perspective, and you realize that he was singing about himself going through the motions that have grown so rote he feels detached, while the guitar stays mostly the same. In “This Place is a Prison,” Gibbard sang how “the tumblers are drained and then flooded, again and again,” while in “This Temporary Life,” “the glass is full, the glass is broke/and every day dissolves, and there’s no hope.” A classic morning after.
Then, at the end of that verse, a shift. Backing vocals kick in, and two lines later, the guitar goes full reverb. A woman sings the start of a thought, which Gibbard finishes. Nobody calls except, maybe, his mother. He’s all alone in this city. And yet, in the song’s denouement, after he expresses regret about moving here, some sunnier guitar kicks in alongside the soul-crushing reverb. Hope, perhaps? Or just a sunbreak?
Early reviews of Kintsugi, the Death Cab for Cutie album that’s due for release on Tuesday, are middling, and after the single listen I’ve given it so far, I’m inclined to agree. It’s a disappointing feeling, after that hopeful night in January, when the three new songs we’d heard had left us blown away.
But the great thing about music, as opposed to other art forms, is that it’s harder to sully the legacy of your previous work simply by doing something later. Ridley Scott is shooting a Blade Runner sequel, which, by its mere existence, nullifies the ambiguity that made the original a masterpiece. Meanwhile, Weezer hasn’t released a decent album in 14 years, but Pinkerton will forever endure.
Kintsugi might be an album that grows on me, like so many of the National’s releases. It might be an album I only listen to twice, as I did with U2’s No Line on the Horizon: Once to decide it was bad, and again to confirm it. Odds are, it will fall somewhere in between. And that’s fine, really. We each only have so much greatness in us. Life is temporary, and we have other things to do.