Prior to seeing Death Cab for Cutie play the Metro on Friday night, I had seen them on four separate occasions. The first two times they were supporting 2003’s “Transatlanticism” and the following two times they were supporting their major label debut in 2005’s “Plans”. Ultimately it amounted to four times in about three years, though two of them were headlining music festivals where they were up against poorer options. It also helped that I was obsessed with the band and felt that Ben Gibbard was one of the biggest songwriting prodigies of the last decade. Seriously, his lyrics seem to speak to me. But somewhere in the 3 year gap between Death Cab records, which was also a time period where I graduated from college, the band went down in importance in my mind. That their last album, “Narrow Stairs” was a bleak and generally poor quality piece of music only pushed them further from my radar. It’s easy to suggest that my slowly developed dispassion for the band was a result of their ascent in popularity and major label status. More likely it was a combination of a couple things: my own tastes in music changing along with the fact that “Narrow Stairs” really was a pretty bad album. It’s been another 3 years since that time, and the band is finally ready to put out a new album at the end of the month, titled “Codes and Keys”. In the weeks prior to its release, the boys decided to do a little tour, with the word “little” being the most important descriptor. Considering they regularly headline festivals and play for tens of thousands of people (and announced an arena tour for this summer), Death Cab booked a whole bunch of club dates at venues with capacities of under 2,000. So it was with the hope of reigniting my passion for the band and catching an early listen to a few songs from the upcoming album, in addition to seeing them perform in such a small and classic location.

One of the things that has always disappointed me about the Death Cab for Cutie live show is how neatly scripted it all is. They start with “The New Year”, make sure to play all of the singles from the “Transatlanticism” record and after, and then close with the song “Transatlanticism”. What really counts is the selection of songs that come between all those predictable moments. Breaking Friday night’s 25 song setlist down by album, the clear winner of the night was “Codes and Keys”, as the band played at least 6 (if not 7) songs from it, or over half the record. That’s to be expected, but it did leave the crowd in a bit of a spot. Playing a lot of new and unheard material can be fun to hear, but you can’t sing along to it nor do you know how good or bad it might be. My very early opinion on the new songs is that they’re a definite improvement over much of “Narrow Stairs”. On the whole they’re a little brighter and catchier too, though they stay largely true to everything we’ve come to expect from Death Cab. Both Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla have been trying to talk up the new album by saying it’s a lot more experimental in nature, with fewer guitars and more electronic dabbling, but that only appears true to a minimal degree. Maybe the live recreation is a little different than the recorded one. Also, though their sound is typically top notch and one of the best not only in Chicago but in the country, from the back corner position I was stuck in with the sold out crowd, much of the set came across as muddy and extremely bass-heavy. The band also screwed up/aborted/restarted two of the new songs, likely due to not having played them live many times before. They’re sweetly forgiven for those sorts of mini blunders. Anyways, the point about the new stuff is that it gives me just a sliver of hope that maybe the band will do as well or better than their previous peak. Call it a long shot still, but once I’ve heard the “final” versions of these songs I’ll be able to better judge.

As to the older material, it was excellent to hear the “FOrbidden Love” EP’s “Photobooth” early on in the set. Had the band released that song today, it’d likely be a big hit for them. The wealth of Death Cab for Cutie’s catalogue was actually spread out pretty well across the set, with a few minor issues. It may have been their previous album, but “Narrow Stairs” did not deserve to have four songs in the set. Of course they also could have done a lot worse than “Grapevine Fires” and “Long Division” in addition to the two singles from that record. Their most popular record to date, “Transatlanticism”, earned equal footing with “Narrow Stairs” in claiming four spots in the set, with the traditional starting and closing songs plus their two popular singles smashed in between. The dream matchup there would have been to try a deeper cut from the record such as “We Looked Like Giants” or “Expo 86” rather than the same old, same old. As far as “Plans” was concerned, that was another “all business” transaction, pulling the only three singles from that record and nothing more. The farther back they went the better it got though, which is why “A Movie Script Ending” and “We Laugh Indoors” felt so fresh and exciting even if they’re more “go to” picks from “The Photo Album”. Surely they would have done “I Was A Kaleidoscope” or “Blacking Out the Friction” had they been able to squeeze it in. Instead, three songs from “We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes” emerged from hibernation, with “Company Calls” being the biggest shocker. “405” is a classic and always a delight to hear as well. Finally, mid-way through the set came the lone “Something About Airplanes” song, “Pictures in an Exhibition”. An even more compelling choice would have been “President of What?”, but it’s a miracle to even get a single song from that 1998 debut so let’s consider it a win.

If I’m being highly or too harshly critical of Death Cab for Cutie and their choice in songs from Friday night, it’s because I care about their well-being as a band. The hope for any band is that they’ll continually evolve the longer they’re around, both on record and on stage. You pray for a solid catalogue from which they can pull any number of songs, including b-sides and not bat an eye. Perhaps as a band they grow tired of performing the same songs night after night and either allow their set lists to vary wildly or take the tracks we’ve come to know and love and tear them to shreds in new and invigorating ways. For a band that is close to celebrating 15 years together, they look awfully bored and awfully mellow on stage. Sonically there’s very little fault in their performance. These are songs they’ve played so many times they could do it in their sleep. You watch as Gibbard hits every note with that syrupy sweet voice of his while he bounces back and forth from foot to foot. You see Chris Walla bent over some machines or a piano. Nick Harmer moves around a bit as he’s slapping out his bass lines, while Jason McGerr remains trapped behind a drum kit as usual. It’s a little better than an Interpol live show, where the guys pretty much glue their feet to the floor and play everything straight (but their lighting rigs move!), but not much better. I stopped going to Interpol shows after seeing them five times and realizing they weren’t getting any better both on and off the stage. Now with my fifth Death Cab for Cutie show, a lot of those same feelings are cropping up. Will I ever feel the need to see them live again? Maybe if they put out a truly great new record and I want to hear songs from it. With the completely unfamiliar new material from “Codes and Keys” that seemed to dominate the set, I need more time and listens) to properly digest those tracks to see if the album will be truly great. Once I reach that point, the next best thing these guys can do is switch it up. They may be obliged to play (some of) their singles, but it’d be nice if they’d try and make a concerted effort to avoid pleasing all of their fans all of the time. Those that have stood by them for 10 years or more deserve a little more love than they’re currently getting.

One final note on the crowd and their reaction/behavior. It was a frat-tastic evening with plenty of strong-armed alcoholics trying to show how indie they are by attending a Death Cab show. If many of them weren’t making a trip to the bar, they were high-fiving and chatting through many of the songs. Please note that not everyone was like this, as there were a good deal of respectful and smart concert-goers that wanted to hear every note because they paid for it. Still, cheering and applause appeared to be very thin through much of the set (where new stuff dominated), and only near the end where it was hit-after-hit complete with sing-alongs did people start to get truly excited. “Aw man, they’re hitting their stride now”, some idiot next to me said during “The Sound of Settling”. What made it funny was that they ended their main set immediately after he said that. Still, the general lack of excitement from the crowd either impacted the band negatively or impacted my impression of the show negatively. Either way, the subdued reaction did not help. You saw Death Cab for Cutie at the METRO. They will likely never play a place that small ever again. At the very least, that was something to cheer about.

Preorder “Codes and Keys” from Amazon

Set List:
The New Year
Crooked Teeth
Some Boys*
Codes and Keys*
Company Calls
Long Division
Grapevine Fires
I Will Possess Your Heart
I Will Follow You Into the Dark
Title Track
You Are A Tourist*
Underneath the Sycamore*
Pictures in an Exhibition
Doors Unlocked and Open*
We Laugh Indoors
Soul Meets Body
The Sound of Settling
Home Is A Fire*
??? (New Song)*
Title and Registration
A Movie Script Ending

Death Cab for Cutie – Home Is A Fire

Death Cab for Cutie – Underneath The Sycamore

Death Cab for Cutie – Some Boys

Death Cab for Cutie – You Are A Tourist