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On latest album, “Asphalt Meadows,” Death Cab For Cutie

Sept. 15, 2022 Updated Thu., Sept. 15, 2022 at 2:56 p.m.

By Julien Leubbers For The Spokesman-Review

Death Cab for Cutie, stalwarts of the Seattle indie rock scene for over two decades, release their new album “Asphalt Meadows” releases on Friday.

The record is the band’s 10th since their debut, “Something About Airplanes,” in 1998. The years in between have brought albums anywhere from very good to downright astonishing, cementing the group as fan and critical favorites.

Facing a somewhat monumental legacy, Death Cab stepped up to the plate once again with “Asphalt Meadows” and knocked it out of the park.

With front man Ben Gibbard’s distinct vocals and songwriting tying them to the familiar, the group was able to experiment, said Dave Depper, who plays guitar and keys for the band.

One aspect of that experimentation was “a pretty collaborative songwriting approach” instigated by the lockdown in 2020. Depper said the band wrote over 50 songs, finally arriving at a record of just 11.

The collaborative writing process and addition of a new producer, John Congleton, “let us do a bit of a creative renewal and a record that we’re very proud of, that I think both sounds like us, but also sounds very different from anything we’ve done before,” Depper said.

At times, devoted Death Cab listeners will feel like Gibbard is singing these songs through a whole new landscape of sounds. Then, moments later, they’ll be struck by a riff that couldn’t be more Death Cab.

“Asphalt Meadows” comes out blaring with blow-the-speakers-loud rock from the first minute, as it winds its way through an opening sequence that snaps between moments of smooth groove and wall-of-sound rock.

Each of the early songs is driven by a different part of the band. A twangy bass opens the album on “I Don’t Know How to Survive;” “Asphalt Meadows,” the title track, is driven by tight and rolling drums; and “Foxgrove through the Clearcut” is built on a circular guitar riff.

There is a delight in hearing each of the band’s members at the fore, playing some of the most engaging and innovative parts Death Cab has put out. Most consistently, though, the ear is drawn to Gibbard and his lyrics, the words conditioned by the array of sounds that envelop them.

One of Death Cab for Cutie’s draws has always been Gibbard’s way of turning seemingly effortless phrases over themselves and letting them fall. His voice isn’t a conventional operatic beauty, but it has a texture of authenticity, delight and wonder.

At times, his singing and lyrics come across as a one-sided conversation, a monologue even.

He sings like a poet talking to himself, and never more so than on “Foxgrove Through the Clearcut,” a track that, in more ways than one, steps well outside of Death Cab’s previous range.

Gibbard delivers lyrics in a still, spoken-word style he has never used before, narrating a song about regeneration, place and native land over a lumbering bass line.

In between Gibbard’s verses, Depper plays a gentle cascade of ethereal guitar tones.

As the track builds, the guitar evolves into a shoegaze-y, deep wall of sound. “None of us had been part of music that sounded that way,” Depper said of the song.

It culminates ultimately in a full but shrill cathartic belting calling to mind post-rock bands, like Explosions in the Sky.

“Rand McNally,” one of the album’s highlights, is a more recognizable Death Cab song, following the guitar’s twinkling flow and a stomp-y drum.

It’s a dynamic track built on a very nostalgic tone. The past, though figuring prominently into the lyrics, isn’t the true subject of the song. Rather, the nostalgia serves to summon Gibbard’s hopes for the future: “I won’t let the light fade/chasing these roads into dawn,” he sings.

“It’s such a beautiful melody. It’s such an evocative sentiment,” Depper said of the song, which he counted among his favorites.

Picking favorites, though, is not easy on “Asphalt Meadows,” which with each successive listen becomes more intriguing. “I Miss Strangers” brings immense dynamics, “Wheat Like Waves” is filled with vivid imagery and “Fragments from the Decade” feels almost space-y.

“Asphalt Meadows” is broad and new, but it still sounds so vividly and distinctly like the Death Cab for Cutie that has possessed hearts for over a decade.

“I really love them all,” Depper said of the tracks. He is proud, he said, of every single song and wouldn’t cut a single one. I couldn’t agree more.

As in Death Cab’s best albums, the confluence of lyrics and music in “Asphalt Meadows” succeeds at instilling a very particular feeling, something between heartache, awe and excitement. Caught up in its sound, listeners may find themselves nodding along for hours at a time to this enchanting album.

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