As Beck and Damon Albarn know too well, your celebrity fantasy girlfriend only becomes a proper muse when she leaves you. Knowing this, Death Cab for Cutie fans have been wringing their hands ever since lead singer and songwriter Ben Gibbard pledged his troth to former indie It Girl Zooey Deschanel.
So we can write off these post-indie Pacific Northwest sweethearts now, right? Well, Ben’s lyrical edge has dulled considerably—nothing like falling in love to inspire a line like, “When there’s a burning in your heart / build it bigger than the sun.” And there’s a new, disturbingly severe ProTools polish that distances Ben emotionally. Gone is the in-your-ear confessional of Transatlanticism, probably for good.
The band’s actual sound, though, is more fascinating than ever, a coalescing of their various ideas. At this point, they’re the Walkmen without angst, the Flaming Lips without affectation, Coldplay with songs. Credit the arrangements of alt-rock mainstay Alan Moulder, who airbrushes Death Cab’s influences together into a new pop impressionism, the future of MOR.
More importantly, he keeps dragging in dark elements to keep Gibbard on his toes. So “Home is a Fire” sounds nervous when Ben isn’t, and the sentimental “Doors Unlocked and Open” comes on with a deceptively tough attack. Death Cab may be mainstream now, but they still give great texture, and Ben’s smart enough not to trust his new happiness completely. Most love songs, after all, don’t have a hook like “Night is gonna fall and the vultures will surround you.”