In 2000, when Death Cab for Cutie released We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, the follow-up to 1998’s promising debut Something About Airplanes, the Washington State quartet was already riding high on the waves of underground buzz. And since Voting Yes proved much more adventurous in songwriting and recording than the relatively no-frills Airplanes, Death Cab for Cutie seemed poised to break into the big time.
And they did. All it took was a mere five-song release, The Death Cab for Cutie Forbidden Love EP, to put the boys over the top. The EP found a whole new legion of fans and, ironically, landed on more critics’ year-end lists than Voting Yes. That’s not bad for what was basically a collection of three standby tracks (“Photobooth”, “Technicolor Girls” and “Song for Kelly Huckaby”), an alternate take (“Company Calls Epilogue”) and an acoustic version (“405”).
Since then, Death Cab for Cutie has remained an impressive critical and commercial success, acting as a flagship band to propel its fledgling label, Barsuk Records, into the upper echelon of indie rock. The year 2001 saw the release of a third full-length effort, The Photo Album, which shot to the top slot of college radio charts (CMJ) and stayed there for weeks.
The shivering fragility of leader Ben Gibbard’s tender voice and poetic lyrics has always been the band’s creative center of gravity, while guitarist Chris Walla’s insular production tricks usually tempt things back from the sleepy side. Bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Mike Schorr, meanwhile, contribute a smoothly effective rhythm section that offsets any prior hints of indulgence.
With the release of The Stability EP, Death Cab for Cutie seems to be going for an effect similar to that of The Forbidden Love EP, striking while the iron is even hotter than last time around. But Stability probably won’t achieve quite as profound results, since it’s just three songs, one of which is a cover and another of which clocks in at a meandering twelve minutes in length.
The opening “20th Century Towers” starts gently with strummed guitars and brushed drums, and continues that way throughout, never reaching a truly satisfying point of interest. When Gibbard sings, “And yet it still remains / This incessant refrain”, or when all four players join in choir-like to announce, “All Around”, such haunting moments should really have led to something bigger and more dramatic. But instead, they just key the song’s half-awake trailing off into the ether.
It’s especially a shame because Gibbard dispenses some of his better nuggets of lyrical understatement to date, which are thankfully reprinted on the record sleeve so you don’t have to wait for each whispered verse to usher from his lips. The song’s grandiose themes are somewhat burdensome, but those who are in their twenties will surely dwell on the parts about correcting “collegiate mistakes” and clearing “the slate of former years”.
“All is Full of Love”, the EP’s centerpiece, is an emergent gem here, flushed with life in comparison to the two tracks bookending it. It’s also, surprisingly, a Bjork cover, which may be why it sounds so anxious and inspired. Gibbard is well at ease with the tune, Michael Schorr’s drumming is quite fantastic, and Chris Walla’s guitar atmospherics settle over the affair nicely. The song should be a treat for fans of either Death Cab for Cutie or Björk, and especially for fans of both. Iceland’s musical princess herself would no doubt be honored.
“Stability”, the closing title track, isn’t quite as urgent, but it’s still a step up from “Towers”, at least for a while. Gibbard first sings, “Time for the final bout / Rows of deserted houses / All our stable mates are highway bound” in just the right affecting tone. Soon enough, respected Californian recording whiz John Vanderslice steps in with backup vocals, and the song keeps getting better. But then when you finally start to notice the extended passage of time, you’re already eight minutes in with four minutes still to go. Hooked into an eventual tangent of sleepy wordless repetition, “Stability” keeps creeping along, far past the point of intrigue. By the end, it’s just a damn bore.
Every Death Cab for Cutie release has had its share of dull patches, but sadly, two-thirds of The Stability EP feel like a concentrated dose of such disappointing slumps. We’ve come to expect a lot from Death Cab for Cutie, so Stability comes as a letdown, necessary only for hardcore completists. In fact, it turns out that these three songs were originally included with select copies of The Photo Album as bonus material. No wonder, then, that this feels so tacked on to the band’s otherwise spectacular career.