Death Cab for Cutie’s "The Blue EP" was released earlier this month on Sept. 6 with five new tracks from the Washington-based band. The album title aptly describes the songs within the EP: It explores the Bellingham Olympic Pipeline accident, a car crash and a disappointingly middle ground sound between classics like their fourth album "Transatlanticism" and their push towards the band’s 2015 evolution with "Kintsugi."
Rich Costey serves on this album as the band’s production replacement of founding member Chris Walla. He continues to be a wonderwall for the bands growth that they’re pushing for. Costey came on for "Kintsugi" and has production credits for Muse, Foster the People, Interpol, Sigur Rós and Biffy Clyro, among others.
"To The Ground" opens the EP by introducing the compositional habits expected from the band. With faded in Ebow guitars, tight drums and jangling neck pickup riffs, it's smooth and welcoming. After the building blocks have been introduced, lead singer Ben Gibbard’s iconic double-tracked vocals come in, singing vague lyrics about a car accident that would be foreboding had he shared more about it than just “there’s a car accident.”
The song incorporates teasing call and response runs between the guitar and piano that could be a soft attempt at nostalgia engineering or an exercise in finding the balance of old and new. Repetition of one or two words on the choruses and refrains is something that shows up across the EP and works as a glue, delivering words with thickened meaning that stick with the listener as the album builds up around them.
"Kids in '99" has another jangly riff that "Good Help (Is So Hard To Find)" and surrounding tracks from "Kintsugi" established. It evokes an integral part of Death Cab for Cutie’s sound, with a much darker, more distant mix. Gibbard’s lyrics are about a pipeline explosion that took place in the band’s hometown of Bellingham, Washington that killed three children more than 20 years ago.
The band has expressed that the incident is close to their hearts, and Gibbard said in an interview with the band's hometown paper that the intention of the song was to commemorate the tragedy.
"The Olympic Pipeline explosion in 1999 was a tragedy that really affected me while we were living in Bellingham," Gibbard said. "After all these years I felt it was worthy of its own folk song."
As harsh as it is, the song's lyrical content suffers from the same “why should I care” problem “To The Ground” suffers from: Namely, begging questions about the subject and what the band is trying to express beyond what specifically transpired. Indolent lyric writing is something the band normally stays far from — with the exception of the album "Keys and Codes" — and is something the band has made clear they don’t want to return to. "The Blue EP" has a frustrating amount of it.
"Man In Blue" is a mix of lovelorn and stalker-esque flavors with somber and upwards moving chord changes, reminiscent of tracks from the “Plans” album but masked in a more removed, arena style production. The track's lyrics sound the most like Death Cab for Cutie off of the entire album, despite having so little of them in the song. With a chorus that seems antithetical to everything Gibbard has ever sung about, it prompts, "I just want to understand you / I don't need to be your man in blue."
Pulling away from the refreshingly compelling lyrics, "Before The Bombs" dives into another exercise of nebulous lamenting. It tells the story of two lovers persevering through (you guessed it) bombs. The melody is brilliant, and it works in lockstep with the drumbeat coming down like a march with the guitar riff. The song includes a gritty synth that clobbers in on the choruses in unison with a fuzzed out guitar. Synths come in again on the refrain with an upper octave run that fits the sound palette flawlessly, which begs the age-old question of why Death Cab for Cutie doesn't incorporate them more often.
The EP closes out with "Blue Bloods," and it all ends stronger than it started. While there’s a glimmer of hope, the song is a final confession from Gibbard, revealing what all the love songs he’d been writing were really about. It seems to be another examination of a tragedy but done much more flexibly and stylistically than the other three on the EP. While the content remains vague, it leaves appreciable room for imagination. There’s a satisfying tangle of subject and instrumental that the other songs seem to lack.
Synths do gratifying legwork on the track. "Blue Bloods" has a lush synth pad operating as support for the peeled-back piano in the composition. The portato vocal melody and spring reverb guitar are supported by a light swing, endowing an indie-western sounding atmosphere upon the length of the tune. It all comes together into something that sounds like it was meant to play over the last five minutes of a season finale on a TV show, and maybe the title betrays the bands secret aspirations for that.
Gibbard has pleaded on more than one occasion for fans to be more receptive of the band’s new growth after the departure of founding member and producer Chris Walla. "The Blue EP" tries to balance allusion to itself with an expedition into something different, and it falls more conventional than not. Compared to "Kintsugi," it’s hard to justify the EP beyond testing waters and, at that, it’s not bold.
As a thematic EP it’s strong, compositionally consistent and self-referential. The band is afraid to turn off long-time fans but, at nine albums and counting, it’s hard to remain the same while commercially viable, even if the audience wants them to. "Kintsugi" is proof they can do it, and "The Blue EP" is evidence it’s going to be hard.
Luke Standley is a freelance reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @dailylobo.