Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard makes amends for all the girls he's loved (and lied to) before

The whole thing begins with a bang: It's December 31, fireworks explode over the front lawn, the Cristal cork pops, and sensitive twentysomethings with all different shades of dyed black hair raise their champagne glasses to one another--probably toasting all the new breakups that the next 12 months will bring. But Ben Gibbard is still waxing existential in the corner, and you get the feeling that it's going to take a lot more than a sexy Friendster testimonial to cheer him up. "So this is the New Year, but I don't feel any different," he sings on the opener to Death Cab for Cutie's best album to date, Transatlanticism (Barsuk). To the rest of us, though, everything has changed.

Where have all the emo boys gone? The introspective bloggers Gibbard once serenaded have given way to a genre so ambiguous it now refers to any frontman who plays guitar and doesn't know the words to "Nookie." The latest crop of tattooed depressives--Dashboard Confessional, Saves the Day, Thursday--have taken up all the shelf space next to the Lost Soul T-shirts at Hot Topic. And it seems the only way that more seasoned emo artists like Gibbard can distinguish themselves is by playing the tough guy, drying their eyes before their hornrims get misty. When Death Cab's 2001 track "A Movie Script Ending" played on the WB teensploitation drama The O.C. while high schoolers road-tripped down to Tijuana, the popular girl in the car commented, "It's, like, one guitar and a whole lot of complaining." But on Transatlanticism, Gibbard isn't wallowing in self-pity anymore. Those narcissistic days are behind him. Now he just feels sorry for you for feeling sorry for him.

Remember that lonely voice on your stereo, the one that promised you he'd always read magazines aloud to you and take you on long drives through the mountains when it's raining? Well, he lied while you hung your head and cried--and then he looked down your shirt when you weren't looking. Meet the new, not-so-innocent Ben Gibbard: On the lovely Elliott Smith-style jangler "A Lack of Color," he admits to reading porn. Electronic bleeps cry like sad cuckoo calls on "Lightness" as he confesses to peeking through a hole in a cute fashionista's dress. The plaintive rocker "Tiny Vessels" finds him acknowledging that he used false pretenses to get an impressionable brunette into bed. You can almost hear Gibbard warning you: Rocker boys aren't more empathetic to girls' feelings just because they've been screwed over themselves. Sometimes writing songs about how you never get laid is simply the best way to get college chicks to unbutton their blouses.

They read porn so that you don't have to: Death Cab for Cutie
Michael Muller
They read porn so that you don't have to: Death Cab for Cutie

In most emo albums, those topless girls become ghosts. They're the nameless, faceless "you" for some singer's nostalgia, an entry in his journal, a vehicle for the dropped handkerchief that turns up in the chorus. On Transatlanticism, these women are haunting Gibbard, trying to break back into the song. Photos of a girlfriend he wronged show up in his glove compartment; springtime carries the smell of a student he slept with first and gossiped about later. These things fill him with such regret that he can't even bring himself to speak in the first person when he finally confesses. On "Tiny Vessels," he sings, "This is the moment that you know/That you told her that you loved her but you don't/You touch her skin and then you think/That she is beautiful but she don't mean a thing to me."

There you have it: No more poetry, no more romance, and no more bombast, either. Perhaps the rhapsodizing frontman finally realized that he's no more perfect than the pedestal-raised ladies he sings to. All lofty metaphors have broken. Two songs later, when he looks up into the sky through the window of his car, he just sees satellites--and they're brighter than the stars.

I'd like to say that the moment is a revelation, that Gibbard gets out of that car and walks straight into a women's studies class to get salvation from his sins. But he doesn't. When the final drone of the closer "A Lack of Color" transitions seamlessly into the same mournful hum that began the first song, he's back to claiming that he doesn't feel any different from how he did when the album began. But with the low moan of that last song shooting straight from my ears into my memory, I feel like I'm not hearing Gibbard's voice in the same way I used to. His lack of earnestness may be ugly, but it's honest, so I let Gibbard sing to me the way his sirens sing to him--as the voice without a face inside my head. I've given myself over to that voice all week. It makes me sad to think that sometime next year, I may open my glove compartment and find Transatlanticism sitting there, reminding me of what it's like to be loved and forgotten.

 
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