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Apathy Girl and Other Tales

Musings of the Overly Naive Cynic

This week I have been wearing out my copy of Death Cab for Cutie’s sixth studio album, Narrow Stairs. I feel a bit like I am drinking poison, I know what it does to me, but I just cannot stop myself. I cannot help but to let every cell swell with the sound until they burst. Seeing as I am usually in my car whilst listening, it creates quite the show for my fellow motorists. But what is worse than cytolysis is the hypocrisy; I do not care for this album. I waited for it with bated breath. I circled the release date on my calender. I pre-ordered. I nearly screamed when after an extremely long day at work a lovely brown package arrived from the Amazon (.com). Sitting in the semi-dark I prepared to have my mind blown, my heart shredded, my previously bated breath simply taken from my chest. What I got was a dissonant, discordant, nearly displeasing synth-pop throw-back. A step so deftly away from what I love about this band that I nearly made the conscious decision to like Narrow Stairs for nostalgia’s sake.

Because, when backed into a figurative corner via argument over this album, I must admit that there is really not a single song on it I do not actually like, not love, which is the standard, but like. I enjoy the bass line in Bixby Canyon Bridge, a frenzied heartbeat for a person calling out to be heard, as well as the songs not so subtle allusions to Kerouac. I fancy the sparse portrait painted in Grape Vine Fires, subtly sweetened by Jason McGerr’s Paiste Twentys which hold their own against Gibbard’s sliding vocals. Pity and Fear capitalizes on the somewhat worldly sound of the album (and pays homage to The Beatles) through the use of Indian tablas as initial percussion and a continued driving force to take the listener through their own walk of shame.

Given all of that, what could I possibly dislike? Much like Kerouac, and a group of touring musicians, I have traveled. When I was first introduced to Death Cab for Cutie via the album Transatlanticism, I was young. Very young. I knew not what I did. I was too young and naïve to be stepping into the world of alternative (then) indie rock. It is not the general Love Me Love Me, Say That You Love Me of the all too poptastic Billboard Top 40. It has very little to do with Lady Lumps, no matter how lovely. It is something different. And I fell in love. Innocent, tortured, adolescent indie-rock love. Clings to you like thorns, the notes cutting you as you struggle to be freed. For whatever reason, I thought it was a good idea to bleed. Logic would have kept me listening to classic rock and folk rock and every other generic nice girl sound I could find, but I chose the path of most resistance. I would have to follow someone into the dark, have my heart broken, burn it down till the embers smoke on the ground. But at the same time, Ben Gibbard swore to me that someday I would be loved.

I was on the highway, trying to move forward, my path lit by a surprisingly bright melancholy, a catalog of songs that all had very specific meanings, some hidden, some obvious. All allowing hope. Yes you would be sad, yes the distance was far to row, yes this is not it for you, but there were still so many chances, possibilities, that within all of the heart-wrenching tonal sadness of my indie rock cocoon, there was Soul Meets Body, someone was traversing along a perpendicular path, perhaps one day I would hear them humming, the only song I wanted to hear. What Sarah Said, a haunting admission to flawed mortality, served as my questioning Oracle, could a song about death be beautiful? Answer carefully. Marching Bands of Manhattan, We Looked Like Giants, Tiny Vessels, all of it ebbed and flowed, a river that swelled until the dam burst, modes of transportation, life-preservers of possibility. Of the sunlight, of art and argument, of a specific life, a sensitive indie-rock man. That Kerouac with his beat and his immorality and I with my internal radio and sentimental heart and those poor touring musicians from the great North West, our path’s, our travel, meant something. He would become the stuff of hipster legend, they would lessen the polarization of nerdy things. And I. I, no matter how many times I listened to the wrong music, some day I would hear the right song. And then it was all about Hindsight, three wasted years, standing still.

Ok, that was a bit heavier than necessary, or true, but sometimes that is how it is. I did wait for the next album, not consciously, but as a woman without a country, without a clear road to walk on, trying on different types of music, different bands, Band of Horses, Gogol Bordello, A Fine Frenzy, Kate Nash, Santos Gold, Tegan and Sarah, anything, trying to decide if my former favorite band could still be as such. At the time (perhaps still) I did not think so. Like staring into a blinding light, or the feeling of hot water on cold flesh, often times the music was too much. It said too much. I was no longer naïve. It was easier to listen to simple, melodically cluttered music, because it did not make me feel anything. It did not move me forward, but it certainly did not take me back. A part of me did long for that sadness though, because it was so sweet, so heartening, to be able to feel something so…

Narrow Stairs dropped in May 2008. It was already hot and humid in Missouri, I was working two jobs and living in a world that was void of real contact, but full of possibilities. I was ready to reconnect, to get back to that bright melancholy, to get back to the hope. Instead I was met with Pity and Fear, homage to the no-connection place I was living in, its accidentally on purpose abrupt ending feeling oddly familiar. Talking Bird, being held by nothing but the notion that you are held (Foucault would approve). And worst of all, Cath… the story of a woman who used up the love she had, and could do no more, so she just jumped in with what she had left. Her line in punctuated by You Can Do Better Than Me, a surprisingly upbeat number that exposes the dark reality that sometimes you are with a person because that is the person you can be with. The album finds its finality in The Ice Was Getting Thinner, acknowledgment, in an unnaturally thin voice for Gibbard. that love, even with the best of intentions and the most careful care, can be broken through.

This, this is the reason I hate this album. It is so hopeless, so grown up, so reasonable, and so final. Yes, you may have been in love at one point in time, but now, politely, you are not. And that may just be ok. You may find a reason or a way for that to be ok. Fine. It was good seeing you again. We’ll have coffee sometime. Insult! The message in this album flies in the face of all that is indie-rock love. It tells people who tend to leave their logic at the musical door to go ahead and keep being logical. To acknowledge that on our path, there is an end to the road, it does not go on to the horizon. This album crushed my dreams, showed me my future, and made me itch all at the same time. For that I hate it. So, to spite the album I carry on listening, taking in the knowledge of hopelessness, as juxtaposition for what the slight, faint, beautiful glimmer of full sap, sadness, and glorious beauty that peaks out through the album, and through the history of the genre. Maybe Narrow Stairs doesn’t epitomize what I think of when my heart craves indie-rock, but then again, maybe its hopelessness is just another road to travel to the same destination, you’ve just gotta spend some time, love.

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