In his 1984 novel, Czech writer Milan Kundera plumbed the depths of existential gravity through a book with an infectiously provocative title, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. While they aren’t directly wrestling with the implications of Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return like Kundera’s novel, “unbearable lightness” captures something about the unique interplay between upbeat indie rock and existential dread that has become synonymous with the band Death Cab for Cutie.
With the release of their tenth studio album, Asphalt Meadows, the band hailing from Bellingham, Washington, powerfully makes a case for their continued relevance in their second decade of output with a record that grapples with anxiety and dread, unreadable maps, being seduced by celluloid ghosts, and the desire for ultimate meaning in the wake of the death of God. All of this heaviness is wrapped in an expertly produced and superbly performed buffet of pop hooks, upbeat indie rock, and carefully orchestrated loops and guitar distortions that create a dissonance that renders the listener acutely aware but never ultimately despondent.
Much like Transatlanticism, their 2003 iconic breakthrough album, 2022’s Asphalt Meadows traces the gaps in meaning and connection that elude us through geographical and topographical metaphors and simmering indie rock peppered with pop sensibilities. The title song opens with a kick drum and keyboard dialogue that recalls the danceable synth beats of the 1980s. This hypnotic beat provides a background canvas onto which Ben Gibbard sketches narratives of tangible angst. There is the interplay between the sacrament of physical connection (“Your kiss was a lonely prayer / When you slipped it into my mouth”) and the incomprehensible mystery within each significant human relationship (“As if all the buildings knew / I could only know half of you”).
“Asphalt Meadows” captures the tragedy that haunts modern life as the flourish of electric guitar builds the song’s tempo towards a crescendo that remains on the horizon. The track tempers but doesn’t extinguish the hope Leonard Cohen traced in the cracks in his “Anthem”. Death Cab for Cutie are more circumspect. “Finding the light under the concrete/Getting trampled under our feet.”
Asphalt Meadows doesn’t merely repeat the melancholy of their work in the early aughts. Instead, it expands and deepens their signature sound without abandoning it. Both lyrically and musically, this is mid-life work, a hard-won maturity that is honest about failure while holding the door open for novelty and hope. Over their career, Death Cab for Cutie’s output has made a case for pop as a medium for existentially heavy themes. It is on full display here. In “Here to Forever”, there is a lightness and a bounce to the rhythmic loop of percussion and guitar chords that grounds the song. It is a pleasant backdrop that belies the existential weight of Gibbard’s pleas for the illusion of meaning in a mixed-up world. “And now it seems more than ever there’s no hands on the levers / And I wanna feel the pressure of god or whatever.”
Perhaps the most arresting song on the album is “Foxglove Through the Clearcut”, where Gibbard provides a spoken word narration grounded by simple notes effected by bass, guitar, and percussion. They repeat in loops throughout the song in six-second intervals, a performative manifestation of time as repetition that foregrounds the tale’s cautionary message about the search for meaning through the lens of cross-country travel. The song expands this individual metaphor to connect with the North American legacy of manifest destiny and how a reading of one’s “calling” can wreak violence and destruction. The song alludes to the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 and the metaphor of the “foxglove in the clearcut” as a reminder that the fruit of the “asphalt meadows” are often flowerings whose toxicity permeates our environment.
Again, Death Cab for Cutie deliver themes of heft and depth with a rhythmic lightness that never betrays the thematic seriousness. Examples include the restrained melodic rhythm of “I Don’t Know How I Survive”, punctuated at points by distorted guitars, the tug and pull between the panic of anxiety and persistence. The industrial tone of “Roman Candles” also juxtaposes a musical tension with the lyrical enactments of the Buddhist desire to let go of that we can never grasp. Acoustic-driven indie pop ruminations on the fleeting beauty of lost relationships (“Pepper”) border straight-up indie rockers (“I Miss Strangers”).
Twenty-five years in, Death Cab for Cutie are now a mature band but by no means stale. They are still adept at framing frontman Ben Gibbard’s poetic images within an ever-evolving sonic canvas. Asphalt Meadows is neither a nostalgic rehash of earlier heights nor a workmanlike product lacking innovation or novelty. It is instead a statement that this band can both occupy space in the indie rock pantheon while at the same time producing new work deserving of consideration with some of their finest early work.