Death Cab for Cutie is one of my favorite bands and for good reason. Ben Gibbard, the group’s lead singer and songwriter, is bestowed with the rare gift of storytelling. In previous posts, I discussed Guy Garvey’s knack for poetic imagery and clever metaphors and Jordan Lee’s ability to sidestep clichés with simple yet skillfully phrased lines. While Death Cab’s catalog certainly exhibits glimmers of these elements as well, Gibbard’s most impressive skill is his ability to paint a picture with words- to transport the listener to Gibbard’s musical universe, a world teeming with characters, feelings, and stories not far removed from our own.
When the wind picked up, the fire spread
And the grapevines seemed left for dead
And the northern sky looked like the end of days
The wakeup call to a rented room
Sounded like an alarm of impending doom
To warn us it’s only a matter of time
Before we all burn
We bought some wine and some paper cups
Near your daughter’s school when we picked her up
And drove to a cemetery on a hill
And we watched the plumes paint the sky gray
As she laughed and danced through the field of graves
And there I knew it would be alright
That everything would be alright
And the news reports, on the radio
Said it was getting worse
As the ocean air fanned the flames
But I couldn’t think of anywhere I would have rather been
To watch it all burn away
Set against a sparing musical backdrop, Gibbard tells us the story of a family’s struggle to maintain a sense of normality amid the chaos of raging California wildfires. Gibbard gifts us with a few wonderful images, none more unsettling and stirring than that of a little girl dancing in a cemetery while the city is engulfed in flames in the distance. At first this may seem unconscionable. What a bizarre image to throw at the listener! Is this simply a product of Gibbard’s disturbing predilection for grotesque morbidity, a strain of his all-consuming pessimism? Quite the opposite, in fact. Gibbard is actually grasping at an ever-important and often overlooked truth. Viktor Frankl, a neurologist, psychiatrist, and holocaust survivor, famously wrote “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” An inspiring figure if there ever was one, Frankl helped provide modern man with a road-map to free choice and autonomy in an age mesmerized by the promise of absolution clothed in Neuroscientific and Psychiatric facts. These “scientific truths” reinforce the idea that we are nothing but slaves to our basest impulses and environmental influences. Gibbard disagrees. By contrasting the innocence and possibility that is childhood with the cruel, blind fury of natural disaster, Gibbard drives Frankle’s point home. We can take the direst of situations and elevate them. We can transcend our stifling surroundings by choosing how we react to them. Rather than allowing the senseless devastation of the wildfires to douse their spirits, the couple sip wine out of paper cups and watch their daughter laughing and dancing on a hill. They refuse to allow the flames outside to smother the blaze of life within.
Here is the award winning animated music video. Please share your thoughts below.