Before the Postal Service, before “The O.C.,” before Zooey Deschanel, Death Cab for Cutie were just some sad-sacks from Bellingham, Washington.
Before the Postal Service, before “The O.C.,” before Zooey Deschanel, Death Cab for Cutie were just some sad-sacks from Bellingham, Washington. The band’s first album, Something About Airplanes, was never going to launch them into the stratosphere like Transatlanticism would; it’s a beautiful album and shows a lot of promise, but it’s an undeniably rough ride. You can see the band they’d become on now-classic songs like “President of What?” and “Champagne from a Paper Cup,” songs sharp enough even with the obscured vocals of Ben Gibbard and the then-imprecise production chops of guitarist Chris Walla. They were always destined for bigger stages.
We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, the band’s verbosely titled sophomore record, took everything the band did well on Something About Airplanes and made it better. While the somewhat-faded sound of Something had its charms, We Have the Facts sounds sharper, due largely to Walla’s progress as a producer between the two records. The sound still lacks the crispness that would come with their third, The Photo Album, but the sonic touches (the crackling feedback and almost imperceptible jingle of keys on “405,” the studio vérité that kicks off “Title Track”) and increasingly uncanny ear for what to bring to the surface of each song made the record sound leaps and bounds past what they accomplished with their debut. Walla clearly knows this. Opener “Title Track” seems like such a fake-out at first, spending the first verse and chorus in the quasi-lo-fi world of Something before the rat-tat-tat of drums at the end of the first chorus signals an auditory curtain drop, the song’s scope instantly expanding to reveal that this band did some growing.
Something drummer Nathan Good, who left the band not long after We Have the Facts was recorded, appears on just two songs, but his performances on each are essential. His drumming on “The Employment Pages” is sparse, but shines when combined with Walla’s hypnotic guitar playing and Gibbard’s ethereal vocals. With “Company Calls Epilogue,” though, he manages to capture the drunken sorrow of the song’s lyrics, complementing its drama beautifully. It’s easy to wonder what his contributions to every other song may have done to change them.
Gibbard’s growth is the strongest, in more ways than one. He wrote the songs and played guitar as usual, but his bag of tricks expanded to include organ and Casiotone, and all of the drumming you hear is his work, from the mind-altering shift in “Title Track” to the thunderous cymbal crashes of “No Joy in Mudville.” His voice is also more controlled while still sounding far more adventurous, allowing for songs as bitter as “For What Reason” and “Company Calls” and as gentle as “Little Fury Bugs” and “405.”
His songwriting, though, is where his exponential growth is most obvious: he cements himself as the kind of heart-on-sleeve songwriter who writes lines that make you kick yourself for not think of them yourself: “Red wine and the cigarettes/ Hide your bad habits underneath the patio;” “Lushing with the hallway congregation/ My best judgment signed its resignation;” “I’d keep my distance ’cause the complications cloud it all/ And mail a postcard sending greetings from the Eastern Bloc.” With We Have the Facts, Gibbard harnesses his sad-sackery for a singular purpose: a concept album about a jilted lover, desperate to overcome the bad blood he has for his former partner, but still unable to not crash her wedding and make a humongous fool of himself.
It’s hard to say how autobiographical the story within We Have the Facts is, but one thing is crystal clear: our narrator is kind of a huge dick. He spends “Little Fury Bugs” dwelling on how dispensable he is to those around him, drunkenly crashes a party on “Company Calls” and “Company Calls Epilogue” and harangues the bride on “Scientist Studies,” stopping just shy of blaming her for his actions: “I may have got an invitation, but I wasn’t invited,” he spits. Through all of this, though, Gibbard does little to make us sympathize with this narrator, past alluding to the cause of his fury on “For What Reason”: “When your apologies fail to ring true/ So slick with that sarcastic slew/ Of phrases like, “I thought you knew”/ While keeping me in hot pursuit,” he sings, his bitterness palpable.
At the center of that story is the two-part “Company Calls” saga, which may still be some of the best songwriting he’s accomplished. “Company Calls” presents a snapshot of the narrator’s slow ascent to the mantle of Drunk Asshole at Wedding in the most shout-along ways possible. With “Company Calls,” we can see the radio-ready indie-pop band that Death Cab for Cutie would grow into, and the DNA of that song is in everything from “I Was a Kaleidoscope” to “Soul Meets Body.” But with “Epilogue,” the damage he’s doing comes into clearer focus: “Crashing through the parlor door/ What was your first reaction?/ Screaming, drunk, disorderly/ I’ll tell you mine,” he moans after reducing his former lover’s wedding to free drinks and family greetings. He’s an asshole in these songs, but like the most well-written assholes, you can easily lose sight of that fact when you imagine yourself inhabiting the same role, experiencing the same torrent of emotions.
There’s an alternate history in which Seth Cohen never obsessed over Death Cab, they never played The Bait Shop and never signed a deal with Atlantic Records, instead remaining indie darlings forever. As time goes on, it becomes harder to imagine that reality ever existing; Gibbard was always meant to be the heart-on-sleeve sadboy voice of a generation, but he was also probably always going to end up playing arenas and amphitheaters for drives of people who have spent chunks of their lives wrapped up in his words. His songwriting has become less evocative, and with the exception of Nice Guy anthem “I Will Possess Your Heart” (not to mention the remarkably self-aware Postal Service hit “Nothing Better”), his narrators have stopped being terrible—which, of course, comes with age. From within We Have the Facts, though, it’s tough to not wish Gibbard had stayed 24 forever, making beautiful and overdramatic songs that showcase people’s heartbreak and drunken mistakes.