It's hard to describe why I consider Death Cab for Cutie to be one of the greatest rock bands of the past decade, especially when I look at the strikes against them: Their musicianship is competent but hardly exciting, their attitude is whiny, and their unoffensive blend of indie rock and adult alternative is destined for the grocery stores and elevators of the future.
Despite all of that, though, their songs are like a late night with an old friend.
The thing that makes Death Cab a great band in my eyes are Ben Gibbard's lyrics. The man has a gift for words. He describes scenes and feelings in a way that lets his listeners layer their own experiences on top of the songs. I wouldn't necessarily describe his words as brilliant poetry, but they are absolutely lyrical, in the truest sense of the word.
Plans isn't quite as powerful as Death Cab's previous release, Transatlanticism, but it's close. This is an album that crosses borders. I know goth kids who love it, punk fans who love it, metalheads who love it, and Barry Manilow lovers who love it. Nearly every song could've been a radio hit, but there aren't as many musical risks as there were on the band's other records. There are so many strong lyrics on the album that I'm hard pressed to focus on one song, but the hospital waiting room in "What Sarah Said" is a great example of Gibbard's gift with words.
Not to over-analyze the jacket, but the band seems to be playing with the idea of tiny bits of light (life) shining through the darkness (death). Abstract lighted windows and buildings pepper the liner notes, and the whole thing is printed on a glossy black paper that reflects light back at the listener. The plain black tray card keeps with this theme, and not only reflects the ambient room light but also the listener's face and surroundings; again, it's another way that Death Cab lets the listener become part of the album. The lyrics are included, but the decision to print them in a middle grey makes them a bit difficult to read. Of course, if I'm correct about the theme of the package, printing them in a more legible way would have destroyed the aesthetics, so the band probably made the right decision to slightly favor form over function.
Listen if you like: This is one of the few bands I'd recommend to almost anyone. It may not be your thing, but if you give it a chance, you might find something special nestled inside of it.
If it were food, it'd be: A warm mug of cocoa with someone you love who probably won't be in your world much longer.