By the time you, the loyal Prefix reader, end up perusing this review, you’ve likely been exposed to months of bitching and moaning about how Ben Gibbard and company “sold out” when they left Barsuk for Atlantic’s greener pastures. You’ve likely heard how Plans is going to be “soft” or “mainstream,” which is indie-speak for bad. Fuck all that. First, Death Cab was never “hard,” and there’s nothing wrong with earning a decent living doing something you love. Don’t write off Death Cab’s follow-up to the fantastic Transatlanticism (2003) just because it’s been put out by a major label. There are plenty of more valid reasons the album’s probably not worth your time.
Give Gibbard credit: He’s not afraid to tell it like it is. On “Brothers on a Hotel Bed” he sings “You may tire of me/ ‘Cause I’m not who I used to be.” This sentiment perfectly sums up the way a Death Cab fan might feel after giving Plans a few spins. Although the band hasn’t really strayed from its cutesy indie-pop formula, the qualities that made Death Cab stand out aren’t present this time around. The problems begin with Gibbard. Normally dependable to come through with clever, imaginative wordplay, he often embraces tired clichés on this album. He just comes off lazy. “I don’t recall a single care/ Just greenery and humid air?” Or worse, “I once knew a girl in the years of my youth/ With eyes like the summer of beauty and truth?” Come on, Ben. Not even a Seth Cohen seal of approval is going to stop the emo kids from rolling their eyes at that one.
If that weren’t enough, many of the songs’ arrangements are dull or just plain ill-conceived. Simplistic tracks such as “Soul Meets Body,” “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” or “Crooked Teeth” have a certain charm and can be forgiven. “What Sarah Said,” however, is unsalvageable. Held up by a quickly grating piano hook, this six-and-a-half-minute ballad keeps hinting at finally exploding into a rousing anthem in the vein of Transatlanticism’s title track. Instead, the song peters out with an extended outro of that damned piano hook, denying you of any payoff.
The album isn’t a total wash. “Marching Bands of Manhattan” and “Your Heart Is an Empty Room” hint at what the band is capable of. Still, most of Plans shows that the band members have forgotten what got them to the level they’ve reached in the first place.