Death Cab For Cutie's 'Something About Airplanes' Turns 20: A Track-by-Track Retrospective
Happy 20th to Death Cab for Cutie’s debut album, Something About Airplanes, released on this day (Aug. 18) in 1998.
The band, then led by Ben Gibbard and Christopher Walla, was still a few years ahead of their first Hot 100 hits, but their scrappy debut foreshadows those successes. And although these early recordings certainly show their seams, they hint at who Death Cab would become: the de facto pioneers of a decade full of mannered, melodic indie rockers.
Mainstream rock was colorful and vociferous in 1998, thanks to the domination of Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week,” The Offspring’s “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)” and the Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic." But Something About Airplanes suggests a resistance to that attitude. On key tracks like “President of What?” and “Champagne from a Paper Cup,” Gibbard and the band are all melody and lyric, heavy on the “twee.” They were also the personification of college rock, as they formed the band as undergrads at Western Washington University and recorded Airplanes in their Bellingham house.
And while Walla and Gibbard knew there was something to the patient, introspective tunes on Airplanes, they had no clue what was in store. In a 2005 interview with the Washington Post, Gibbard remembered that first flashpoint of buzz: “The goal was always to make enough money to just kind of not have to work for a couple of months and tour. Obviously, the expectations and dreams have been far exceeded."
Death Cab for Cutie would go on to experience a series of breakout moments, accelerated by a star-making bump on The O.C. in 2001. But if you want to hear their sound in chrysalis, you can’t do much better than Airplanes. The album embraces a homespun, basement vibe, but the lyrics prove that Gibbard essentially came out as a perceptive, nuanced writer fully-formed -- and with a band that could bring his songs to the light.
In honor of Something About Airplanes’ 20th anniversary and the release of their new album, Thank You For Today, on Aug. 17, here’s a track-by-track look at the album that begat a beloved rock band.
“Bend to Squares”
“Gravitated toward a taste / For foreign films and modern plays.” The first line the world heard from Death Cab for Cutie would seem to sum up the entire MO of their wave of indie rock -- scaling back, getting sophisticated, engaging the brain. In a 2008 interview with Paste, Gibbard recalled that he was trying to hit a different level with his lyrics from the get-go.
“I would just write what I thought were very profound, dense lyrics," he said. "They may be about something in my head, but they don’t translate to being about anything that anybody could understand just listening.” Aside from its lack of linear meaning, “Bend to Squares” is downcast, aching, almost Radiohead-like -- and it benefits greatly from a cello arrangement by Erika Jacobs.
“President of What?”
The political title hasn’t anything to do with the White House. “President of What?” is Gibbard’s first real foray into his favorite lyrical topic: the way households, relationships and communities hold it together -- or warp -- under pressure. He’s already writing like Freedy Johnston, surveying the aftermath of some sort of domestic disaster while sparing us the details: “I saw the scene unfold on a rainy Sunday / Creases indicating folds that kept four walls from caving in.” Not to mention that Gibbard was born to spend a rock song enunciating verbs like "indicating." Walla follows along with his Doors-like keyboard effect.
“Champagne from a Paper Cup”
When Noisey asked about Airplanes in 2018, Gibbard remarked that he hears "all the influences… There’s some flagrant Built to Spill ripoffs on that record. I was really influenced by Rex and Bedhead and a lot of these slower kinds of bands.” The droning “Champagne from a Paper Cup” is a great example of Gibbard trying to synthesize those ‘90s sounds into one all his own. Lyrically, it’s about the words still left unsaid after one too many. And only bummer jams will do at last call, as Gibbard reverses Chuck Berry in a despondent scene: “At half past two, about time to leave / ‘Cause the DJ’s playing rhythm and blues.”
That Built to Spill influence gets cranked up more and more as Airplanes wears on: “Your Bruise” is almost a lost Perfect from Now On jam. It also contains some of the most beguiling lyrical details on the album, getting points for firmly locking the listener into a time and place. Specifically, we’re in the mid-’90s, driving an old Plymouth across the Mississippi River, breaking down somewhere outside of Olympia, Washington. The best line is a surreal shout-out to the lead singer of the now-defunct band Helium: “Mary Timony was smaller than a Super Ball.” Is he describing the music on the stereo, or observing her in a far-out, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” way? Whatever the influence, “Your Bruise” works.
“Pictures in a Exhibition”
Like most of Airplanes, “Pictures in a Exhibition” is a little wet behind the ears. There’s a cliché here (“All these plastic people / With their plastic hearts and smiles”), an awkwardly sung couplet there (“All those dazzling children, they’re so regal / So, clean!”). Beyond this, “Pictures in a Exhibition” is sticky and memorable: Gibbard had already nailed the art of the effortless, emotionally resonant pop song. It would just take a few more years to shine it up.
Speaking with Noisey, Gibbard described “Sleep Spent” and the final track, “Line of Best Fit,” as “sad-boy songs. Some people thought of us as an emo band -- it’s those songs that got us that category.” “Sleep Spent” definitely oversteps, like when he describes “choking the bottle’s neck that pulled you from my bed,” but it’s redeemed by its tasteful, crawling-shadows vibe. It suggests not only Bedhead and Built to Spill as being in Gibbard’s wheelhouse, but a few Red House Painters records as well.
“The Face that Launched 1000 Shits”
This rather threadbare song wasn’t a Death Cab composition, but was penned by Barsuk labelmates and fellow Washingtonians Revolutionary Hydra, which included Gibbard and Walla in its rotating membership. It’s a charming local band shout-out and a brief glance at their creative community. That said, “1000 Shits” is a sore thumb, and even Gibbard admitted it to Noisey: “While I’m really glad we did that to cover a friend’s song, it really doesn’t fit on the album.”
“Amputations” is bookended by a sample of a speech by George W. Turner, with the theme of believing in yourself in a conformed society: “If everybody's making fun of you and criticizing you, then you know you're on the right track, 'cause most people ain't got it.” The song itself isn’t any significant departure, another anthemic emo jam with references to “the bottle,” but you can read between the lines how the speech and this put-down of a controlling partner dovetail.
The oblique “Fake Frowns” has its appeal, while sometimes feeling a little lost and meandering as it reaches the finish line. A higher-BPM, Modest Mouse-leaning track, it’s hung on images of kings, judges and jailhouse queens, all who have something to do with his flustered mood in the chorus (“I can’t drive straight / Counting your fake frowns!"). Speaking with Paste, Gibbard described his confusion about what he was really getting at with “Fake Frowns” and the rest of Airplanes: “What the f--k am I talking about here?”
“Line of Best Fit”
Something About Airplanes is filled to the brim with stuck-in-first-gear bummers, but “Line of Best Fit” wins best-in-show. It’s a pillowy duet between Gibbard and Abi Hall that ends with an all-effects-pedals crescendo. But the best part is the minute-and-change ending drone, conducted by Walla, that foreshadows some of his later ambient solo work, like 2015’s Tape Loops.
Hall sings a logic-broken line: “I remember something inside being something more than…” and gets cut to silence. “Line of Best Fit” is named after a mathematical concept in which a straight line represents a trend in data, and that certainly applies to all of Airplanes. It contains the seeds of the astute observations, dreamy drones and all-the-way-there melodies that would carry Death Cab For Cutie for life. Here, those seeds were just beginning to take root.