DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE
THE PHOTO ALBUM (DELUXE EDITION)
Rare is the young, up-and-coming band that can deftly sidestep the cliches littering the annals of rock history — after all, the trope about the “difficult third album” is as old as the oldest band and is pretty much always true. According to Death Cab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard, it goes something like this: “you have your whole life to write the first record, the second record is the songs left off the first one plus the ones you wrote in the last six months and then on the ‘difficult third record,’ you’re starting completely from scratch.”
Such is the position Gibbard and his Death Cab For Cutie bandmates Chris Walla, Nick Harmer and Michael Schorr found themselves in during the spring of 2001 as they prepared to roll tape on what would become their third Barsuk Records long-player. Its 2000 predecessor We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes and the subsequent Forbidden Love EP had garnered the Seattle-by-way-of-Bellingham quartet its first healthy dose of national indie rock recognition, and Death Cab suddenly had to make a decision. Recalls Harmer, “We were at a crucial juncture: should we quit our day jobs and really go all-in making music, or should we slow it down a little bit? We decided to go all-in.”
Indeed, Death Cab pushed its chips into the center of the proverbial table, and the result was the Walla-produced The Photo Album, which was released by Barsuk on Oct. 9, 2001 and will be reissued digitally in an expanded digital 20th anniversary edition on Oct. 29, 2021 including a wealth of rare b-sides and compilation tracks, previously unreleased outtakes and demos, plus the contents of 2002’s The Stability EP (the three tracks of which were originally released as a bonus disc with the first pressing CD of The Photo Album). A limited-edition LP+12” EP release, delayed by ongoing vinyl industry supply chain problems, is expected to ship in early 2022.
“It’s a bittersweet record for me,” says Gibbard. “It was very difficult to make, but at the same time, I think there’s a couple of tunes that are amongst the best I’ve ever written, and amongst the best we’ve ever put out.”
As the “difficult third album” concept would seem to dictate, Gibbard at the time found himself far removed from the effortlessly collaborative and communal Bellingham settings where Death Cab’s first two LPs were recorded. Instead, he was holed up “in a small, one-bedroom apartment I was sharing with my then-girlfriend, making music really quietly in the corner when I could find the time to do it.” It may seem strange for a 24-year-old to pine for the life he was living not even two years prior, but Gibbard admits that a number of the songs on The Photo Album deal “specifically with nostalgia for our origin in Bellingham. It was a very idyllic college town where rent was $250 and you could make a living working at a coffee shop or record store. Life got more complicated in Seattle, where the rent was four times as much and you didn’t have the space to make music.”
The album’s most enduring song, “A Movie Script Ending,” is a nod to those more carefree days. “I wanted to write a song referencing things in Bellingham that only people in Bellingham would know about,” Gibbard says. “It’s in the vein of how Jack Kerouac would write about Neal Cassady: take this place and these people that otherwise would not be given any lip service, and place them at the center of the narrative, and give them four or five minutes of their due.”
If that song is a celebration of a special place in the Death Cab origin story, “Why You’d Want To Live Here” finds Gibbard rattling off every obvious detail about Los Angeles in the hopes of convincing someone he cares about to not move there (“I can almost see a skyline through a thickening shroud of egos,” “garbage cans comprise the medians of freeways”). “As I look back on it now, that song is from the perspective of a 24-year-old kid who hadn’t left home that often and felt incredibly intimidated by our first ventures to L.A.,” Gibbard says.
He may have been a bit naive to dunk on the city in this way, but a further anecdote about “Why You’d Want To Live Here” is illustrative of how seriously Gibbard took even the most minute detail during The Photo Album sessions. Harmer had flagged Gibbard’s first version of the lyrics, which read, “The Greyhounds keep coming / dumping poverty into the street until the gutters overflow,” and suggested “locusts” as a replacement for “poverty.” When Gibbard asked why, Harmer told him he was inspired by Nathanael West’s classic L.A.-set 1939 novel The Day of the Locusts, which Gibbard hadn’t read.
“I went to the used bookstore literally down the street on a break, bought The Day of the Locusts and came back and read it in the studio before I ended up changing the line, because I felt that was an important thing to do,” Gibbard says with a laugh. “Like I really needed to read the book to understand the reference…”
Many of the songs on The Photo Album had been honed on the road prior to being recorded, which was one of the only times in the band’s history that it enjoyed the luxury of the pre-YouTube era, before new songs were posted online within minutes of having been debuted on stage. “Some of these songs came together very live on the floor,” says Harmer, pointing at another future Death Cab classic like “We Laugh Indoors,” which showcases the band’s louder and more intense side. “Because we were in a real studio like The Hall of Justice in Seattle, we were able to make a lot more noise than on the record prior, and capitalize on that energy we’d been solidifying through playing these songs on tour.”
With so many tracks already having been arranged before Death Cab hit the studio, Walla found himself craving music that could benefit from some extra production flourishes. In demo form, “Coney Island” sounded like what Gibbard calls “a Neil Young-stomp kind of thing,” but Walla turned it into something very different. “It’s very indicative of the process we were employing at that point, which was to deconstruct something and build it completely back up,” Gibbard says. “In that particular case, it made the song a lot more interesting and gave it a nice flavor and a loneliness that sits well on the album.” Adds Harmer, “That’s where Chris started to form his identity as a producer and take some ownership of the final presentation or evolution of the demo.”
Walla’s fingerprints are also all over The Stability EP, which sports two Photo Album-era outtakes (“20th Century Towers,” “Stability”) and a memorable cover of Björk’s “All Is Full of Love.” Gibbard remembers being “in a pissy mood” one day while trying to complete “Stability,” at which point Walla kicked everyone else out of the studio and asked for time alone to work on the track. “When we came back, he’d flipped everything upside down,” Gibbard says. “Everything happening under the vocal was totally different. That’s still one of my favorite things Chris has ever done, and we didn’t really even play much on it. He did such a beautiful job making this really long, expansive thing out of it. I love it to this day.”
Indeed, much of the bonus material included in the reissue underscores the fact that Walla was beginning to really stretch his producer wings during the making of these records. In addition to compiling all the band’s out-of-print U.K. B-sides (plus recordings released on zine compilations and the like, including a cover of The Stone Roses’ “I Wanna Be Adored”) from the era and the previously vinyl-exclusive bonus track “Gridlock Caravans,” the set includes all of the full band demos that preceded the album studio sessions, and a couple of his radically different tape-experiment remixes (“Coney Island,” “We Laugh Indoors”) made at that time.
Walla himself has had “mixed feelings at different points over the years” about how the originally released recordings turned out. In making the decision to remaster them for this reissue (a painstaking process overseen by Walla and executed by João Carvalho to remarkable effect), he signed up for hours and weeks of engagement with work that he had thought (or hoped) he’d never have to get back into. But he says the experience of “revisiting our actual work for this reissue has decidedly unmixed those feelings. I think The Photo Album is pretty excellent. The demos are especially satisfying to me – they were recorded live to the 8-track over the course of a few days just a week before we started the album proper, and they are a beautiful, buzzing, remarkably confident set of test Polaroids for what the album would become.”
The band’s audible confidence (along with the endurance that had been required to release three albums in as many years while touring constantly for much of that time) paid off. Within a few weeks of its release, The Photo Album had already sold 20,000 copies — almost half the total sales of Death Cab’s prior two records combined — and was still going strong. The band felt validated. The gamble had paid off. Then in mid-November, Barsuk called with some unfortunate news: one of the two biggest record distribution companies in the United States, Valley Distribution, had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and gone immediately out of business. With it went the money it owed Barsuk for those first 20,000 sales. “Barsuk didn’t get paid and we didn’t get paid,” Harmer says. “We were already out on the road, and that was a big blow to us financially, and for our morale.”
“We almost broke up a couple times on that tour,” Gibbard confesses. “This thing went from something we were doing for fun at a house in Bellingham because we’re all friends to, now we don’t see our other friends, because we’re doing the band all the time. What that period gave us was the opportunity to push it all the way to the edge, personally and creatively, and go, OK, wait a second, this is important to us. We are friends. This is worth saving. This is worth continuing to do. That really opened up the creative playfield that would become our next album, Transatlanticism. We finally recognized that we love doing this — we just needed a break once in a while.”