Rolling Stone once labeled Death Cab for Cutie “more creepy than cuddly.” And among the words Plugged In used to describe Narrow Stairs, the band’s chart-topping 2008 effort, were “grim,” “depressing,” “despairing, “achingly sad” and “heartbreaking.”
But this Bellingham, Wash., indie act composed of frontman Ben Gibbard, bassist Nick Harmer, guitarist/keyboardist Chris Walla and drummer Jason McGerr, is exploring a different sentiment these days: hope. “You Are a Tourist,” the first track from the band’s eighth album, Codes and Keys, constitutes such a lyrical departure for the group, in fact, that music critic Jim DeRogatis of Chicago’s WBEZ said, “[This] is a new and very welcome optimism from Gibbard, who all too often has made end-of-the-world prophet Harold Camping look like Little Miss Sunshine.”
Gibbard has good reason to feel more cheerful. He recently gave up alcohol, took up running and married actress/musician Zooey Deschanel. He told VH1 that “Tourist” represents “a series of affirmations in an otherwise dark and cruel world.”
Those affirmations include paying attention to the longings of one’s soul instead of fearfully suppressing them (“When there’s a burning in your heart/An endless fury in your heart/Build it bigger than the sun/Let it grow, let it grow/ … Don’t be alarmed”), and relinquishing damaging ruminations when it comes to crippling doubt and harboring grudges (“When there’s a doubt in your mind/’Cause you’re thinking all the time/Framin’ rights into wrongs/Move along, move along”).
In a more literal sense, Gibbard also counsels “moving along” when life feels stagnant or empty, implying that a change in venue might cure a stubborn case of the existential doldrums: “And if you feel just like a tourist in the city you were born/Then it’s time to go/And define your destination/With so many different places to call home.”
As the song winds down, Gibbard does exhibit a moment of the self-flagellation he’s famous for … quickly followed by a healthy reminder that even when we’ve blown it, second chances are still possible. “‘Cause when you find yourself a villain,” he sings, “In the story you have written/It’s plain to see/That sometimes the best intentions are in need of redemptions.”
Death Cab’s latest, then, is an airy, catchy reminder that our ineffable yearnings are a sign we’re alive. Fan the flames of hope and desire in your spirit, the track tells us. Focus on what’s positive and don’t dwell on needless despondency. Think of yourself more kindly. Don’t be afraid to dream. In other words, all the things Death Cab fans haven’t been encouraged to do for more than a decade now.
And that means Death Cab for Cutie has really turned an optimistic corner. On this song at least.
A postscript: If there’s any caution worth noting here, it’s the simple reminder that all of those dreams coursing through our hearts need to be viewed through God’s filters, not just our own. Without intentionally examining our deepest desires from His perspective, Gibbard’s counsel to follow our hearts’ impulses could potentially be a recipe for disappointment, or worse, disaster.