Album Review: Death Cab for Cutie – Asphalt Meadows

[Atlantic; 2022]

There’s a certain gravity to a band releasing their 10th studio album. It’s basically the equivalent of a particularly momentous birthday, a symbol of what has come and how there is still more down the pike. For Death Cab For Cutie, this occasion is worth celebrating, as it also signifies their 25th year putting out music. Ever since 1998’s Something About Airplanes, the PNW indie rock stalwarts have been churning out emo-adjacent rock music, full of empathetic character studies, open-heart lyricism, and an earnestness that has sometimes proven to be a weapon as much as a hindrance. Their last album, 2018’s Thank You For Today, was all sheen and little substance, as the band dwelled a bit too much in its placid beige soundscape. But on Asphalt Meadows, the quartet sounds sharper and more alive than they have in years.

Ironic, then, that the first song sees frontman Ben Gibbard mentioning, over and over, “These nights / I don’t know how I survive.” The song starts with an uncharacteristically knotty, looping guitar lick, then explodes for the choruses. It’s a classic quiet-loud combo that’s been done many times before, but the band handles the transition with grace. Following this is the even crunchier “Roman Candles”, a two-minute spurt of observations about trying to let go of what’s keeping you down, even when it’s difficult simply to wake up in the morning. This fraught relationship with the world, other people, and survival in general, is etched into nearly every sonic inch of Asphalt Meadows, but it’s the most invigorated they’ve been on record since at least 2011’s Codes & Keys, or maybe even 2008’s Narrow Stairs.

Some of that may be due to the band simply trying some new things. Despite being so deep into their career, Death Cab are not afraid of attempting to push themselves into uncomfortable territory. On 2015’s Kintsugi, they dabbled into more electronic territory, and on this one, they go harder than usual, leaning into higher volumes, brittler textures, tougher highs and softer lows. But another explanation for this course correction comes in the form of John Congleton, who produced Asphalt Meadows. His particular brand of tight, shiny production is a good fit for the band, who needed a bit of a shake-up after the last couple records. It’s probably no wonder that this is their best album since Chris Walla departed the band and, thus, departed production duties. Congleton is the first outside producer to let the band shine while also imparting his specific language into the conversation.

After the one-two punch of the intro, the album settles a bit. The title track is a pretty standard indie rock affair, and the mid-paced “Rand McNally” is a gentle burn. “Here to Forever”, though, stands as one of Gibbard’s best songs in years. Another tune questioning life and mortality, Gibbard ushers us through a hooky chorus that sees him wanting to “feel the pressure / Of God or whatever.” It’s a plea to garner some understanding of How It All Works, and one that isn’t answered. (It also includes a classic Gibbard observation, mentioning how whenever he watches an old movie, all he can about these days is “they’re all dead now.”)

Gibbard’s trademark sincerity and the unabashed wearing of his emotions goes a long way, and has ever since the band’s inception. But it has also gotten the better of him, and it does so here, on the unfortunate spoken-word ballad, “Foxglove Through the Concrete”. Despite a very pretty instrumental, the lyrics as spoken in his terribly heartfelt narrative voice, are cloying and clumsy. Stretching past five minutes, the song serves mostly as an overlong palette cleanser or interlude, never justifying its duration or its own choices.

The last leg of the album goes by relatively tamely, with only a few moments sticking out. One of those is “Wheat Like Waves”, which is a nice gentle rocker with a lovely hook in the chorus. But the real standout of Asphalt Meadows comes in its penultimate track, “Fragments From the Decade”. A slow, far-reaching account of loss and memory and moving on, the track unfurls at an unhurried pace. It has an almost-shockingly pretty melody and vocal delivery from Gibbard, and a soft instrumental, all sparkles and dust, harkening back to older slow-motion wonders like “No Joy in Mudville” or “Transatlanticism”. Congleton’s production melds with the band’s songcraft here in such a stunning way. It’s arguably their best song since “Cath…”

Overall, Asphalt Meadows is a fine record from a band so deep into their career they really have nothing left to prove — except, it seems, to themselves. Even when they experiment with their sound (however gently) it doesn’t always result in a strong album, but what they do is usually at least admirable. Here, it transcends “admirable” and becomes actually impressive. Gibbard and company could easily rest on their laurels, and to a degree they kind of do — every album they’ve made absolutely sounds like a Death Cab album, both a blessing and a curse — but with Asphalt Meadows, they show us that, when the stars align, there’s still electricity to be found. And incidentally, that seems a fittingly optimistic and apt result of an album dedicated to the search for meaning.