Over the course of a two-and-a-half-year pandemic, thousands if not millions of people across the country and the globe were forced into an extended existential crisis, resulting in all kinds of self-reflection and reevaluation on our emotional and mental wellbeing, the importance of a healthy work/life balance, and how we even want to interact with the rest of the world. Contrasting this inner focus was the even greater attention we placed on what was happening outside the confines of our quarantined homes in and around our local and national communities. Like so many others, Death Cab For Cutie frontman and songwriter Ben Gibbard watched events around him play out with a heightened sense of dread.
“We in America had kind of taken for granted this idea that everything was just going to keep working,” he says. “That our institutions will continue to function, that the people in charge know what they’re doing, and that you have nothing to worry about. It just seemed as though many of the things that we took for granted were on the precipice of just falling apart. And I think that when you live with that sense of chaos you are made painfully aware of the fact that it was never functioning as well as you thought it was, and all it took was somebody just to push it a little bit.”
This pervading air of frustration, disappointment, and apprehension is something that weighs heavily within the core of Death Cab for Cutie’s 10th LP, Asphalt Meadows. Gibbard himself cites a line from one of the record’s standout singles, “Here to Forever”—“Now it seems more than ever, there’s no hands on the levers.”
“No one’s in control,” he argues. “And depending on our belief systems—if we are religious, we believe God is in control, if we are liberal, we believe the government is in control—whatever it might be. And it felt to me, in this particular period, the curtain was kind of pulled back. To use a tired metaphor it was The Wizard of Oz, and you pull the curtain back, and there’s nobody there. There’s not even a guy. There’s no man controlling stuff. It’s running on autopilot and the machine is starting to kind of disintegrate. I think that the anxiety that I was feeling out of that particular time period was a real driver on this record.”
While Gibbard undoubtedly had an abundant wellspring from which to draw his lyrical ire, the logistics of actually demoing, developing, and recording the album’s songs posed its own set of challenges in the early stages of the pandemic’s social lockdown. Every Death Cab for Cutie song has always begun from Gibbard, with some kind of skeleton or scaffolding from which the rest of the band—bassist Nick Harmer, drummer Jason McGerr, guitarist Dave Depper, and keyboardist Zac Rae—could then physically get together in a room, sort through the material, and figure out what was and wasn’t working. Spread out along the West Coast and state lines, that relied-upon system was a nonstarter.
Instead of simply sitting on their collective hands, Gibbard reached back to a methodology that wasn’t all that far removed from writing with Jimmy Tamborello for The Postal Service. “It was an approach that I think drew on the fact that we couldn’t all be together,” says Harmer. “Rather than making it a weakness, we turned it into a strength for us, which was really fun.”
Every week for two years, the members of Death Cab for Cutie played a game of musical telephone, with each individual getting assigned a rotating day of the week. “If your day was Monday you started a song,” explains Harmer. “It could be a drum beat, it could a bass