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Album review: Death Cab for Cutie explores new and old roads in “Asphalt Meadows”

Two figures look out towards a foggy cityscape on the cover of Death Cab for Cutie’s “Asphalt Meadows.” The indie rock band released their 10th full-length album Friday. (Courtesy of Atlantic Records)

“Asphalt Meadows”

Death Cab for Cutie

Atlantic Records

Sept. 16

By Graciana Paxton

Sept. 16, 2022 4:18 p.m.

This post was updated Sept. 21 at 9:19 p.m.

Death Cab for Cutie is proving its indie legacy lasts from here to forever.

In the 10th studio album of their 25-year career, the indie rock veterans provide a masterful, melodic examination of existentialism, connection and hope. With “Asphalt Meadows,” Death Cab for Cutie emerges victorious from the battle of whether or not to compromise its original sound for modern techno-indie styles by instead opting for timeless, intentional production and euphoric string melodies. Here, the band seems to have recaptured the magic of its early works — from the lyrical poignancy of 2003’s “Transatlanticism” to the raw vulnerability of 2005’s “Plans” – as the emotional resonance of “Asphalt Meadows” marks a tender, triumphant return to the band’s best.

As its angst-filled, anticipatory chords lead into a crashing crescendo alongside the song’s chorus, the album’s opening track, “I Don’t Know How I Survive,” provides a taste of the stylistic blends featured on the album. Throughout the track, bright, twinkly production finds itself gracefully juxtaposed against bold, brash drums and electrifying guitar solos. At the song’s conclusion, lyricist and vocalist Ben Gibbard hopefully hums the lyric, “Listen to the ringing in your ears/ The scrambled voices of your fears,” kicking off the album’s introspective examinations of one’s most intimate hopes and worries.

Levels of lightness and grunge swap dominance throughout, but the balance of the two diverges off course with “Roman Candles,” where discordant, warped-techno flare masks vocal clarity. While this style of overproduction is unsuccessful, the inverse works gracefully on tracks like “Rand McNally,” as more simplified production allows the band’s sentiments of finding community and connection on the road to glisten with authenticity.

[Related: Concert review: Lord Huron executes thrilling visuals, delivers dynamic performance]

Amid its exploration of complex questions regarding connection and life’s purpose, the album still makes room for triumphant indie anthems like “I Miss Strangers” and its strongest single, “Here to Forever.” The latter – which features some of the album’s most danceable, gratifying rock blends – opens with Gibbard vocalizing a recurring thought about how all the actors in the movies he watches from the ’50s are likely deceased now. While this may seem like a jarring match to the track’s uplifting backing, it is this exact signature blend of solemnity and hope that characterizes the band at its most authentic and resonant.

In a similar fashion to “I Miss Strangers,” the raw, timeless instrumentals and vocal vulnerability of “Pepper” make it a track that could easily be found on any early 2000s Death Cab record without sounding derivative. Opening with un-beautified strumming and evenly paced, steady vocals, the track soon segues into pleasing pulsing beats and higher-pitched, vulnerable crooning. While the grungy “I Miss Strangers” has a more thrilling and fast-paced feel than “Pepper,” the track matches the emotional level of its honest lyrics as Gibbard sings, “These days I miss strangers more than I, more than I miss my friends.”

In what is by far the album’s most conceptual piece, Gibbard opts for spoken word lyricism rather than his signature clarified crooning in “Foxglove Through the Clearcut.” Despite its airy, glistening backing, its abstract poetic nature makes for a track listeners are less likely to revisit compared to the others. Regardless, the song holds a satisfying air of immersion with Gibbard fully embracing his role as a storyteller – an accurate representation of the role he has played in the band both vocally and lyrically since its inception.

In “Fragments from the Decade,” the group translates the innovative style of “Foxglove Through the Clearcut” into a more digestible form. As Gibbard warbles about “fragments from the decade” that are “too beautiful and helpless to survive,” echoed sounds of children laughing and cheering serve as an intimate backing deftly evoking an overwhelming sense of nostalgia on par with the effect of Phoebe Bridgers’ “Scott Street.”

[Related: Album review: Tame Impala blends past and future in highly anticipated fourth album]

With the part-existential, part-euphoric “I’ll Never Give Up On You,” the band manages to flawlessly conclude “Asphalt Meadows.” While Gibbard initially vocalizes themes of hopelessness and release, the track soon finds optimism through the recurring motif of its titular phrase. Albeit a bit repetitive lyrically, the track more than makes up for it with elegant, ascending instrumentals – masterfully shifting between ominous and uplifting to provide a resounding emotional resonance that not only ties to the track itself but the album as a whole.

Equipped with immersive storytelling, rich melodies and an authentic rock feel, Death Cab for Cutie has made clear it isn’t giving up on old fans and new audiences anytime soon.

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Graciana Paxton | Music | fine arts editor
Paxton is the 2022-2023 music | fine arts editor. She was previously an Arts contributor from 2021-2022. She is also a third-year psychobiology student from Morgan Hill, California.
Paxton is the 2022-2023 music | fine arts editor. She was previously an Arts contributor from 2021-2022. She is also a third-year psychobiology student from Morgan Hill, California.
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