Death Cab For Youth: Getting Older With Former Sadsack Ben Gibbard

For my thirty-third birthday, my husband pre-ordered “The Barsuk Years,” the Death Cab for Cutie vinyl box set. “That way you’ll only have the good ones,” he said.

He said “good ones” with an uptick in his voice, almost as if he was asking a question. Neither of us can tell how much of the gift, or any part of it, is a joke. I opened up the box, and I laughed. I love these records. Or: I loved these records?

It’s a time in music—or a time in music for me?—when the definition of Good Music has never been murkier. Are these the good ones? The idea of “good ones” just surfaces a lot of questions for which I don’t have an answer.

“The Barsuk Years” box set was scheduled for release a month before my birthday. It arrived two months late, and the manufacturer mislabeled the records. What’s labeled as “The Photo Album” is really “The Stability EP.” “The Stability EP” is actually “You Can Play These Songs With Chords.” It goes on. Artist in Residence, the company that released “The Barsuk Years,” specialize in high-end collectors releases aimed at the sort of person who would like to pay $95 for a copy of Julian Casablancas’ solo album “Phrazes for the Young.” A+R has promised a fix for the mislabeled records at an unspecified time in the future, but I’d rather keep them this way. It seems fitting that what I want to hear from Death Cab might not be the reality of what comes out of my speakers.

Ben Gibbard—Death Cab’s lead singer—has another archival release this year, which has received a bit more press attention: it’s the tenth anniversary release of “Give Up,” the first and only Postal Service album. (Also: one of only three platinum records in the history of venerated indie label Sub Pop.) Funny or Die released a fake Postal Service audition “tape” in its honor. The conceit of video: what if Ben Gibbard, darling of the sadsack Seattle scene at the dawn of the mainstreaming of indie rock, had to audition to be the frontman for that collaboration with Jimmy Tamborello? The fictitious jackass Sub Pop exec in the video casts a wide net for potential superstar collaborators: “Weird” Al Yankovic, Sunny Day Real Estate/Foo Fighters bassist Nate Mendel, Moby at his shirtless “Animal Rights”-iest, and an alarmingly Bowie-looking Duff McKagen. Aimee Mann is the only one who doesn’t seem like she’s joking, bringing a similarly gentle energy to “Clark Gable” that Gibbard eventually would, once he got around to writing it. Inevitably, Gibbard takes the stage in a wig that harkens back to his longer, devil-may-comb hair from the early aughts and starts crooning.

I watched the whole video through the slits between my fingers, waiting for the punchline. But there wasn’t one. Gibbard sings a couple of verses of “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” and Jimmy Tamborello picks him for the bleep bloop team. Did I miss something? Was the punchline the awkwardness of watching someone willingly put on the trappings of their past as if it were a theme party?

A few years ago, I played a game with some friends speculating what one would wear to an early aughts theme party. We suggested white belts, slightly mussed fauxhawks, boys in too-tight t-shirts, and girls wearing jeans under dresses? But it turns out that the biggest signifier is Gibbard’s side-parted bowl cut.

It’s ten years since the Postal Service album and ten years since Death Cab’s fourth album “Transatlanticism,” when I started tuning him out, and I haven’t had as many opportunities to stare at him in the intervening decade. He doesn’t look the same as he did a decade ago, but not in a predictable older, grayer style. He started running marathons, got sober a bit over five years ago, got a haircut. He doesn’t look like the older version of himself, a guy who used to croon about wearing long johns under his slacks. He looks like a stranger. It reminds me of when I was six and my father shaved his beard and I didn’t recognize him. Seeing Gibbard’s face everywhere is starting to make me feel unhinged.

The first time I saw Death Cab was in a warehouse in Pittsburgh on Route 28. It was in early 2001, the cover was $5, and the warehouse didn’t have a bathroom. My boot-flared jeans were too long for my legs and dragged on the probably-asbestos floor, and I had to pee for two hours. There were about 25 people in the audience. (So yes: that story.)

A few months before the show, I had heard “A Movie Script Ending” coming out of my boyfriend’s speakers. I was writing notes for a fiction workshop, and the sleepy hook of “high-way, high-way” repeated over and over so often that I started scribbling “highWAY” in the margins. It was so melodramatic and perfect and I started laughing. My boyfriend was offended. He thought I was making fun of the song.

He said he was going to go see them, and he offered to take me only if I didn’t laugh.

Besides the way he folded a hook into a song, there was something about Gibbard’s stage presence that I connected with. He didn’t look like a frontman—he seemed like a shy boy in a pair of $10 thrift jeans that I dreamed up in my bedroom. Looking like an average nice guy seemed incredibly daring to me at that time.

So I saw Death Cab more times than I have any other band: in Ohio, and Texas, and I once traveled to Washington to see them at the Sasquatch Festival. I remember driving two hours back to my Seattle hotel room, trying to drive my friend’s stick shift while he slept. I listened to “The Passenger Seat” over and over, wishing I was in one, but excited about being exhausted and doing something I didn’t know how to do.

Death Cab weren’t the voice of a generation, or the now-controversial phrase “a voice of a generation,” but they captured the moods of the nameless youth trapped between Gen-X and the Millennials who wanted to stand out from the families and friends they left behind in their small Midwestern towns. Their lyrics were about navigating the lo-fi intangibles of your twenties. There was “something” about airplanes, champagne from a paper cup was “never quite the same,” you were only “pretending to read.” You may have had an invitation, but “you were never invited.”

The thing that was important to me about the wave of Northwestern indie bands Death Cab came up with was that they glorified sad sacks and mostly steered clear of gender demonizing. The love interest was (mostly) “you,” not “her.” I was just starting to appreciate the importance of gender-free pronouns. The demons in the early Death Cab songs weren’t girls, they were deadbeat parents, rancid but necessary house parties, the city of Los Angeles.

For as many times as I saw Death Cab, I never saw the original Postal Service tour in 2003. My friend Jessica had two tickets to the show at the Mercury Lounge on Sixth Street in Austin, a venue that, like the reason why I couldn’t go, has been lost to redevelopment. But here’s what I think is the reason. The Postal Service was when I started to question what I understood to be good music. I knew someone who knew someone who knew which “gaudy apartment complex” Gibbard sang about in “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight.” At the time, I thought that meant that too many people knew about the band. I should have gotten the hint then that liking bands didn’t individuate me from people as much as I thought it did.

And anyway, “Such Great Heights” was a summer anthem, and up until that summer, most of my music choices had been about not being part of a summer anthem. I had started listening to Death Cab because they felt pretty autumnal year-round.

The last time I saw Death Cab was in a medium-capacity venue in Kansas City sometime after “Transatlanticism.” Most of the people in line with me were under 21 and Chris Walla and Ben Gibbard looked as if they were wearing jeans they bought first-hand. I remember thinking as I stood in a sea of hands with underage stamps: this isn’t my band, this is someone else’s band.

Then Death Cab went hi-fi and were playing for real-live cuties on “The OC” and The Postal Service was, for a solid year, in the soundtrack of every TV show, movie, and commercial. Gibbard not only moved to the place he sang about not wanting to live, but he married a Hollywood actress, renounced his “unhealthy lifestyle” and took a role in a movie directed by TV star John Krasinski.

After 2011’s “Codes & Keys,” and then the end of his 26-month marriage to Zooey Deschanel, the Internet has made a part-time job out of tearing Gibbard down. Last year, Hipster Runoff put him on suicide watch. I wonder if this piling on of Gibbard would be different had Death Cab had broken up after they left Barsuk in 2004, if I wasn’t just pretending “The Barsuk Years” box set were the only records they made. A lot like that in-between generation, Death Cab was a band that straddled the continuum from being a “legacy indie band” to sticking around long enough to get big. But unlike like Built to Spill, Wilco, or Modest Mouse, it seems now like the internet is embarrassed by Gibbard. It’s like everyone is mad at him because he reminds people that who they were ten years ago could now be a rather sad little theme party. The trendy generational markers might not be as vivid as a white disco suit or a giant clock around the neck, but they age just as badly.

Yet when I’m nostalgic for being 22 or 23, I will more often than not reach for The Postal Service. Death Cab sounds a little too gauzy, now that it’s baked in the sunlight of a decade. The Postal Service have a durability, especially for a side project, and they are now canonized by the nostalgic indulgence of a reunion tour. In 2013, it’s hard to argue with the force of a summer anthem, and it’s hard to keep arguing about whether or not an indie band is good when their album goes platinum.

What kind of music do I want Gibbard be making right now? Did he have a long-run plan? Is he still hashtag relevant? Was he really the one worth leaving? When Gibbard released a solo album after his divorce, I read some speculation that it would be full of “more sad Death Cab songs.” I don’t want that. To me that would be a different kind of sad. Sad like a thirty-six year old who’s still drinking champagne from a paper cup, crashing on your couch when the party’s over. I want him to be happy, and I want him to embrace his age. Because we are all getting older: tonight’s Postal Service show in Salt Lake City was canceled “due to illness,” Gibbard announced today.

I recently read a trend piece in the Globe and Mail about a few people referring to their thirty-third year as their Jesus Year—and not because Jesus died when he was 33, but as a nod to the year that he accomplished the most. I prefer to think of it as my coming-to-Jesus year. If I cared about my favorite band shilling their songs in a commercial, I might have nothing left to listen to. I’m the kind of person who owns a fetishized box set so I can reimagine a discography. Pronouns free of the male gaze aren’t enough for me anymore, I want to listen to frontwomen, not frontmen. Beyond still getting excited about what Karen O’s fashion choices—also more than ten years later, of course—I don’t choose to see bands because of what they’re wearing or where they bought their jeans. I don’t mind running to the bathroom during a set; I’m not afraid to miss anything. I love to sit down at shows, and I love the moment when I remember that I bought seats instead of general admission. Which I remembered to do when I bought tickets to see my first Postal Service show in two weeks.

Like “The Barsuk Years” box set, I can’t decide if going to see the Postal Service is a joke or not, but I’m going to face Gibbard in his decent jeans and neatly trimmed locks. When you spend hours of your formative years listening to a band in your bedroom, singing the soft hooks to yourself, it’s hard to separate your own meaning, your place in the world from theirs. When he steps on the stage, I hope that that I stop wondering if he’s okay. Because when I wonder if Gibbard is okay, I wonder if I’m okay. So what: I was 23, and now I’m 33. There was something about Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard, and about that time. Now, there’s not. He really meant something to me, and now he doesn’t.

Jen Girdish is worried about a lot of things. Read about them here. Photo by David J. Lee.