Happy 20th Anniversary to Death Cab for Cutie’s debut album Something About Airplanes, originally released August 18, 1998.
Death Cab for Cutie are a band that sprung from a very specific moment in musical time. Teen soap operas were becoming a launch pad for attractive young indie bands, especially those with pop appeal. And while they are still defined by the tracks that played supporting character to primetime television, the evolution of their sound and their DIY-style work ethic have combined for two decades of consistently good albums.
Something About Airplanes, their debut studio album, was released in 1998. Five years prior to the mainstream success of Transatlanticism (2003), it is a slightly unpolished gem of indie rock with glimmers of greatness. The flippant title is punk-esque, cool by way of not caring, an echo of the Pacific Northwest music scene. Since they didn’t have the same rock star charisma as Washingtonians Nirvana or Sleater-Kinney, their reliability and steady perseverance would be a boon to survival in the early Aughts indie scene.
In Something About Airplanes, the origins of DCFC’s style is easy to trace. Their flourishes are smoother nowadays, radio ready, where the mixing on their debut is natural and raw. A penchant for unexpected accompaniments, “Bend To Squares” has a melancholic violin which lends some Neutral Milk Hotel-style folk flair. Macabre organs in “President of What” would become a Chris Walla signature. “Picture In An Exhibition,” feels like gentler, poppier Built to Spill. But despite all the clear connections, Airplanes maintains an authentic air.
Quiet and engaging lyrics foreshadow their biggest singles, like “I’ll Follow You Into the Dark,” on 2005’s Plans. Gibbard hadn’t developed his dramatic streak fully, but there’s an edgy quality to his vocals, a tinge of disaffection. “Champagne From A Paper Cup,” a song with a title dripping in early emo aesthetics, delivers with haunted vocals and methodical guitar.
“Sleep Spent” is plodding, as some of these early tracks can be, without the grace of a sure-footed music veteran. But even when they take their time, the sound is more romantic than sleep-inducing. That slow, deliberate style comes back on “Line of Best Fit.” After the raucous “Fake Frowns,” it risks tedium, but instead sprawls into a lovely collage.
“The Face That Launched A Thousand Shits” is a nonsensical song, written by a friend of the band, a youthful misstep that’s like seeing an old high school yearbook—nostalgia without depth. Lines like “he’s unresponsive cause you’re irresponsible” are punctuated by cymbals and snares in “Amputations.” A rare reverb-heavy moment from DCFC, the track is undeniably emo, even down to a slightly outdated non-sequitur sample.
The most recent Death Cab-adjacent release is a remix of the single “Gold Rush,” by dance producer Photay. Walla, the Lennon to Gibbard’s McCartney, left the band in 2014. Death Cab for Cutie continues to tour. With a long-running streak of popular success that alluded fellow bespectacled indie darlings of the early aughts, they feel like an exception to the rule.
While Something About Airplanes doesn’t have any real “ah ha” moments, ones where it becomes clearly captivating, it’s a tidy rock album that promises more good to come (if you’re willing to wait a few years). Gibbard’s voice is weak at times and the band seems to be looking for inspiration a little close to home. But overall, it’s a great time capsule for the band who would find fame by doing things mostly their way.