What the hell is this? No, really – where did this come from? That may be a strange question to ask of a five-track EP, but the strangely inconsistent career of Death Cab for Cutie makes it a reasonable one. Last year saw the band settling into what felt like its death throes with Thank You For Today, a limp collection of songs that felt like someone had gotten 90% of the Death Cab formula, but weren’t given the emo edge that made the band so good in the first place. It was lyrically uninspired and sounded terrible – and “Gold Rush” is the most irritating single the band have ever produced. Those who side-eyed the announcement of The Blue EP were well within their rights to do so, even if lead single “Kids in ’99” did show a glimmer of promise.

So, what the hell is this? Or, more specifically, where the hell has the band been hiding this version of themselves? Death Cab have always had a deceptively strong EP game, which doesn’t hurt; the loyal know that Forbidden Love EP, The John Byrd EP, and the wholly unfuckwithable Stability EP (which features a killer cover of Björk’s “All Is Full Of Love” and the 13-minute “Stability,” which saw later life as Plans‘ more digestible “Stable Song”) are essential releases in the Ben Gibbard canon. At first blush, Blue could pass for something just as plagued by terrible production as Thank You. You’d be forgiven for this mistake.

But where Blue diverges is that it feels designed to reverse engineer songs around the muddy vocals of its predecessor. While the album was shiny and sterile, Blue is grimy and loud throughout. Opener “To the Ground” kicks us off with a wash of feedback and perhaps the most aggressive drums you’ve ever heard from the band, the kick drums tinged with distortion. Then Gibbard comes in, vividly describing a hideous, fiery car crash leading to the “charred remains” of said car being overtaken by nature, a surprisingly beautiful endpoint for such a grim setup. This proves a great way to lead into “Kids in ‘99,” in which Gibbard wonders where the kids who died in the Olympic Pipeline Explosion might be today. Gibbard is no stranger to using fire as a backdrop for his songs, but this duo does a lot to make it far more sinister.

The remainder of the EP continues to surprise. The self-produced “Man in Blue” is a sleepy song with a throbbing bass beat running underneath a gentle drone and guitar rhythm, Gibbard in full mope mode: “And I just want to understand you/ I don’t need to be your man in blue.” The dreamy “Blue Bloods,” which slowly builds increasingly noisy layers on itself while he goes into a cutting mode for the first time since probably “Tiny Vessels”: “All these East Coast blue bloods that come out west/And I watch them argue about who loved you the best,” he sings at the top of the song.

“Blue Bloods” and “To the Ground” are some of his sharpest songs in a long time, a faint hint at what a “return to form” might look like for the band at this point. In between these songs, though, his lyrics just aren’t as strong as you’d like; “Before the Bombs” is a weak attempt at making an anti-war song with brick-subtle lyrics: “There’s only one thing that’ll save this place/ The only thing that they cannot face/ There’s only one thing that they cannot take/ Love, love” – that’s just embarrassing. The EP’s bookends are almost enough for help overlook things like this.

Don’t get it twisted: The Blue EP is by no means as good as the EPs mentioned above, or anything made before Narrow Stairs. It has a decent amount of flaws to it, and still falls short on lacking a lot of the elements of Gibbard’s work that made the band so compelling for roughly their first decade. But there are enough moments where you can see the old band peeking out that asking yourself “What the hell is this?” isn’t an unfair thing to do; it’s been so hard to see those things for so long, it’s hard not to wonder where they’ve been hiding that stuff – and why they don’t make music like this anymore.

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