Death Cab For Cutie @ UC Berkeley Greek Theatre [Part 1]
by Elijah MK Lagman
Warning: This series of articles is a big project of song lyric analysis of the set list played at UC berkeley. Each song has a paragraph dedicated to it. Press cntrl + “F” to activate the “find” function for the corresponding song analysis.
- No room in Frame (Kintsugi)
- Crooked Teeth (Plans)
- Photobooth (The Forbidden Love EP)
- Black Sun (Kintsugi)
- The New Year (Transatlanticism)
- The Ghosts of Beverly Drive (Kintsugi)
- Grapevine Fires (Narrow Stairs)
- Codes and Keys (Codes and Keys)
- Little Wanderer (Kintsugi)
- No Sunlight (Narrow Stairs)
- President of What? (Something About Airplanes)
- You’ve Haunted Me All My Life (Kintsugi)
- What Sarah Said (Plans)
- I Will Follow You Into The Dark (Plans)
- Everything’s A Ceiling (Kintsugi)
- Doors Unlocked and Open (Codes and Keys)
- Cath… (Narrow Stairs)
- Soul Meets Body (Plans)
- I Will Possess Your Heart (Narrow Stairs)
- Binary Sea (Kintsugi)
- Why You’d Want to Live Here (The Photo Album)
- Marching Bands of Manhattan (Plans)
- Transatlanticism (Transatlanticism)
The Greek Theater at UC Berkeley is a replication of a structure where Greek drama and melodrama flourished over the centuries. The stage gives a haunting air of tragic heroes struggling with fate or destiny. It’s almost as if I was in the seats and was brought back what I thought thought was my ancestral origin of powerful Athenian royalties.Like the UC Berkeley Greek Theatre does, Death Cab for Cutie has changed art for how we perceive it, evoking a tirade of cathartic emotions of longing and resentment but with a modern twist. They too reflect the tragic heroes lamenting what’s come to them, but bring a glimmer of hope for after the tragic fall. They too have human feelings and show us that we shouldn’t be afraid of them.
Death Cab for Cutie @ UC Berkeley Greek Theatre [Part 1]
Built to Spill, one of their early influences, was DeathCab’s opening act. Their setup was simple, yet the band was rocking on as if they were the main act. Although most concertgoers enjoyed their most famous songs like “Stab”, I particularly grooved to their new song “Never Be The Same”. I enjoy its very simplistic approach and its departure from most of the guitar-solo centric songs they have. I also felt like I could relate to it more. Singer/Bandleader Doug Martsch sang:
“If that’s what you want, you got it you got it. If that’s what you want, We would never be the same”
This line was complemented with a catchy monophonic bass and guitar riff counterpoint which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Soon, Built To Spill, packed up after leaving a huge impression on the crowd. The night came and the lights were turned off. Soon, I hear screaming. Suddenly, behind the screams was the siren hymn intro to a song new-Death Cab for Cutie-fans are all too familiar with.
It was then that all lights turned off and a recording of a vocal sample akin to the spoken word tracks used in their first album** was used to signal that Death Cab for Cutie was ready to come out. A long pause of silence ensued, and suddenly someone nearer to the stage started screaming out of control. Death Cab for Cutie opened with No Room in Frame. The song begins at the end of a story with the haunting chorus-end line “and I guess it’s not a failure we could help, we will both go on to get lonely with someone else”. He sings about a failed relationship riddled with “too many things [he] can’t remember” having self-reflections and doubts of pulling his significant other down.
“Was I in your way, when the camera turned to face you? No Room in Frame for two”
The idea of feeling pushed out of a picture frame is a suitable way to set the theme for the album they’re touring for. Kintsugi is a Japanese artform of repairing broken pottery pieces back together and lining the cracks with gold. Now an album, Kintsugi is a celebration of our downfalls and picking yourself up from them.
Next up in Death Cab’s repertoire was off their first major record label release, Plans, Crooked Teeth. At first, I thought everyone was already hyped up listening to No Room in Frame but as soon as Crooked Teeth played, everyone around me started cheering and singing along much louder. Death Cab is known for this style of weird titles and lyrics. They bring out different ways of perceiving the world around you such as skylines, glove compartments and photo booths. This song was always that fun song that I’d love to play the bass line to but that clouded my appreciation of the song’s meaning.
Although it seems that the general consensus regarding the meaning of this song is that it’s about a relationship bound to fail from the beginning, I think it’s more. This common interpretation is most likely stemmed from an automatic response to the chorus:
“No, you can’t find nothing at all, if there was nothing there all along”
Looking at this line alone, I too would think it was only about a relationship; however, looking at the rest of the song, there is an overarching theme of disdain for a certain city. Ultimately, I think Crooked Teeth is Ben Gibbard’s lament for a city he has ended up in (most likely to follow a girl). His hate for the city, as a result, makes loving his girl much harder and eventually tears them apart. The specifics of the city, I can’t draw a definitive conclusion about.
Gibbard says he knew he “made a horrible call” by leaving his previous residence. He notes that the “state line” that he has passed makes him feel like he’s stuck on the other side of the Berlin wall, as if he cannot leave but it also unwelcome as it is clear he belongs on the other side.
Most relevant however, is the amazing imagery in the following verse that truly showcases how much discomfort Gibbard feels in the city:
“’Cause at night the sun in retreat
made the skyline look like crooked teeth
in the mouth of a man who was devouring us both.”
The reason for the sun causing “the skyline look like crooked teeth” is that when the sun sets, the back-light against the buildings make them look darker than they are. This then starkly disrupts the horizon causing it to appear to look like a mouth with crooked teeth. See photo. This, to me, is such a beautiful line because Gibbard is taking something that many would consider absolutely stunning and turns it into something terrifying.
The cityscape representing city life as a whole is likened to a man devouring the couple. This metaphor evokes Gibbard and his love for his girl as being threatened. Ben Gibbard is fearful that the city is going to consume them, and really, this is such a relevant concern. He is not only trapped in the city but also has to “brave” “treacherous” streets wherein children high on cheap drugs is a common sight.
After that verse, we see that it seems that Gibbard is trying to find comfort in the city by spending time with his girl as seen in the lyrics: “you’re so cute when you’re slurring your speech” however, it is apparent that the effects of the city is tearing them apart since it is followed by “but they’re closing the bar, and they want us to leave. This “they” Ben Gibbard is referring to is ambiguous and I think it reflects the city people as a whole. “They” are always ruining the relationship right when he tries to mend it or see beauty in her imperfections.
Gibbard couldn’t find anything at all in this city, because “there was nothing there all along”—except possibly his girl, but his discomfort within the city has made it too difficult to love her and in the end he found that actually even with his girl the city was empty as he slowly falls out of love with her. “There were churches, theme parks and Malls” – places some people would find comfort and satisfaction in, but to Gibbard these places don’t make a city more significant or substantial. The city may have had these things, but they were not important and ‘there was nothing there all along’.
It was a comforting thought that both old and new generation Death Cab listeners blended in a crowd in such a way that each could find out which songs were particularly meaningful to them. This empathy was definitely shown in the fan favorite Photobooth that followed. Longtime fans cheered happily to the song’s sweet tune and bitter lyrics about memories made in a Photobooth. For me, the lyrics acted as a metaphor for superficial appearances and realizing she-isn’t-what-you-thought-she-was.
Next up in the setlist and coincidentally, Kintsugi track listing, is the ever poetic and all the more obscure, Black Sun. This song, quite like soul meets body at its time, can, over time, become quite irritating as other onlookers who hear the words Death Cab for Cutie say “OH I KNOW THEM! Black Sun right? It’s on the Spotify top 100 indie charts”. The previous statement is an oxymoron in its own right, but putting media hype and superficial small talk aside, the song is very sincere.
Often, Gibbard can be very straightforward in what he sings about. Trudging along the lines of metaphors in mundane things, Gibbard’s clever and crafty lyricism gives meaning to his feelings. However, in Black Sun, he’s hiding in these observations. He talks about the lingering aftertaste of alcohol in his water and all too familiar references to Los Angeles (‘death upon the vine’, ‘desert veiled in pavements’, ‘city of seven hills’) which may or may not be about the departure of his co-founder and guitarist. Nonetheless, Gibbard is wallowing in the phenomenon of perhaps not a literal solar eclipse but rather, a metaphorical Black Sun. He can see the brightness in black, something perceived to be void of light and feel what a situation like this can make him see the world through opaquely lenses. It’s cruel, it’s fair and it hurts. But it takes a man to admit that forgiveness is both graceful and hard. Perhaps it is to say that our finest moments aren’t only in our successes but on how we triumph through our failures. It hurts more, yes, but life wouldn’t have it any other way for us to learn more about ourselves.
Coming to terms with the downs in your life can be quite frustrating, but so can people who think annual events can change their lives. The band strums the same chord two times in a loud bang akin to fireworks set off in the sky. At that moment, we knew we were being treated to The New Year. The opener of their breakthrough album, Gibbard sings of cynical feelings towards the first of January. From acting rich for the days to sighs of nostalgia and if it were this then we would do that. Gibbard’s not only upset with those who view it but also himself for having viewed it in the past. On top of it all, it’s a kickass stadium rock song that everyone headbanged to on somewhat perfect timing with the bass-guitar-drum unison strum.
‘The Ghosts of Beverly Drive’ was played after. The song for me reflects Ben’s introspection on his time living in Los Angeles before he moved back to his hometown in Seattle. The song, driving, upbeat, yet still somewhat somber, built up to a confidently confused “I don’t know why, I don’t know why, I return to the scenes of these crimes… Through the ghosts of beverly drive” that I can’t help but sing along to.
Marking the first third of the show, Jason McGerr plays the familiar purdie shuffle on a vamp as Ben Gibbard thanks the audience for listening and then proceeds to pay due respect to Built to Spill for playing with them. While this was all happening, fans who’ve listened to Narrow Stairs a bit too much know what was about to come. What Ben described as “a song about california” only understated what it meant. Grapevine Fires. is literally about the grapevine fires that raged through Southern California, perhaps one of the most straightforward yet dark songs you can escape to in their catalogue. Although, many can argue about the dark repressions of relationships in comparison to the disaster, Ben did note that he found a beautiful sentiment regarding a child playing in the graveyard, completely oblivious of the flames racing on, taking life and reducing it to soil and ashes.
Coming from the previous LP effort, Codes and Keys, is the album’s title track. The song Codes and Keys is very upbeat in a stadium-rock esque with booming bass-snare drum pattern that the piano mimics in its left-right hand arrangement, respectively. In an attempt to speak simpler but mean more complex, codes and keys achieves an air of bitterness. Things are going downhill when Ben admits “we won’t get far, flying circles inside the jar” and argues that “codes and keys cannot protect you from the pangs of jealousy”. She can’t help her feelings and “when she screams” she screams “like a child throwing stones at the sky” but knowing children, they can’t throw that high. He describes the stone screech descend as “minor chords of major works”, implying a sort of connotation that minor is both an insignificant and depressing cry at major, happier times that they achieved. But Ben still sings with all the content he has, “we are one, we are alive”. Maybe he knew what was coming but realized that this is part of being alive, knowing that good times will end with a hopeful attitude that maybe better things will come.