Wednesday, September 03, 2008

"The Sound of Settling" /
Death Cab for Cutie

It's been echoing in my ears for days now, the lines that begin and end this track from Death Cab's Transatlanticism: "I've got a hunger / Twisting my stomach into knots." Okay, partly it's because I've been dieting (got some big events coming up in October, got to get ready), and I'm HUNGRY. But what's going on in this song is way beyond dieting -- it's a different kind of hunger entirely.

Hear how the first phrase yearns upwards -- "I've got a hunger" -- only to be followed by the melodically convoluted second phrase -- "turning my stomach into knots." (Death Cab does this a lot, reinforcing the meaning of the lyrics with the shape of the tune. Not that I suppose Ben Gibbard thinks about it; he just does it, I bet. Being that sort of gifted songwriter.) That simple acoustic beginning starts to build, as he goes on, "My brain's repeating / "If you've got an impulse let it out" / But they never make it past my mouth," and as the drums punch up that stuttering rhythm, you just know how jittery and blocked-up this guy feels. (How postmodern!) Sure, when he gets to the chorus, all these perky Burt Bacharach-ish "bop-ba! bop-ba!" harmonies break out, but I'm not fooled; I know things aren't working out for him. "Bop-ba! This is the sound of settling," he declares, and the way that word "set-tle-ing" collapses down makes me feel so disappointed.

"The sound of settling" what? It could mean "settling down," "getting settled" -- but the tension in those lines makes it feel more like "settling for second-best," settling for what you can get, settling for anything that's not what you really want. And the next verse suggests it's a thirty-something frustration: "Our youth is fleeting / Old age is just around the bend / And I can't wait to go gray." (Again, hear how "fleeting" climbs hopefully upward, only to be pulled back down by those tangled lines about old age and going gray.) But something stubborn in him fights the law of gravity: "And I'll sit and wonder / Of every love that could've been / If I'd only thought of something charming to say." He sounds bitter about it already, and it hasn't even happened. He exhales, and drops wearily back into acoustic mode to repeat once more, "I've got a hunger / Twisting my stomach into knots" -- and cuts off abruptly. Way too abruptly. Sheesh.

Sure, the song sounds upbeat, but nothing Death Cab for Cutie does is ever really upbeat. They can find the melancholy and regret and neurosis in any situation (just my kind of band!). This is a perfectly excruciating song about losing your romantic hopes and dreams -- or not losing them, rather. And anyone out there who's ever "settled" can tell you how that works out in the end.

The Sound of Settling sample


Natsthename said...

"nothing Death Cab for Cutie does is ever really upbeat."

How true, but it fits their name, no? It's not Happy Cab For Cutie!! ;)

Holly A Hughes said...

I guess I was just deceived by the Cutie bit!