If we were judging music objectively then Death Cab for Cutie’s The Open Door EP would be considered one of the 10 best rock records of this century.
In 2009, I was watching The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien and found myself at the part of the show where the musical guest comes out, which happened to be Death Cab for Cutie. Up to this point, this was a band in which I had a tepid interest at best — they’d gotten big when I was in high school but I veered strongly toward rap and abrasive rock at that point in my life, with Nirvana being my favorite band. Through college, I got into indie rock pretty significantly, but always found Ben Gibbard and company to be meandering, overproduced and full of manufactured or forced emotion.
My mind was completely blown, then, on multiple levels, when I saw their performance of “Little Bribes,” which was coming concurrent with the release of The Open Door EP, on which this song leads things off. It was like they had done a 180 — all of a sudden, the melodies were coming fast, crisp and clear, with this amusing and strikingly original hook which, in permutations, governed both the verse and the chorus.
I ran out and got the CD the next chance I got, which I’m sure was dirt cheap out in Colorado, a pretty friendly consumer market for music and beer. Actually, amazingly, that same CD still played flawlessly in my car a second ago, and I didn’t feel like switching discs so I let it play twice.
The overarching phenomenon, which can’t be overstated, is the brilliance of that incessant hook in “Little Bribes,” a sad love song with an esoteric title full of complex energy and sharp, noxious emotion. The EP then moves on to “A Diamond and a Tether,” which comes complete with some drill sergeant-like self accountability, some rip-roaring guitar sound and a chord progression that is the stuff to boggle minds. This song would have been a huge, huge hit in the ’90s, and this stuff’s reported status as throwaways from the Narrow Stairs sessions, an album jam packed with posing and long-winded horror, for lack of a better term, leaves me no choice but to conclude that Gibbard was deliberately trying to avoid hitting it big. After all, right in this song he makes the haunting admission that “I have fantasies about being alone”. Still, this song plays as the work of somebody who knows relationships inside and out and is taking the malady of true love’s impossibility and giving it He**, just because that’s what we do, when we can.
The EP rounds itself off with a solid title track and then two down numbers, “I Was Once a Loyal Lover” and “Talking Bird” (demo). Just this last time listening to “Talking Bird,” which I’m not going to refer to as a “demo” since it doesn’t sound like a demo and along with the clear production rides an acute, bona fide sense of pain and yearning, I noticed that it reminded me a little bit of “Take it to the Limit,” of one of the better songs by our favorite Cali boys the Eagles. It’s got an identical three-four time signature and the exact same tempo, seeming to call to mind at the same time an emotion that’s very similar, as if emanating from a songwriter who’s projecting within a concentrated storm of inspiration.