52 GIRLS"Cath" / Death Cab for Cutie
Death Cab for Cutie's 2008 album Narrow Stairs is full of mournful songs about people living unfulfilled lives. But wait -- what am I talking about? Every Death Cab for Cutie album has those songs. And me, I'm a sucker for stuff like that, especially when Ben Gibbard sings it in his winsome, faltering, reverbed tenor.
As the video faithfully shows, this song is shades of The Graduate -- a seminal movie scene from my adolescence -- with Katharine Ross trapped at the altar with her "suitable" fiancé, and Dustin Hoffman, sweating and gasping for breath, tapping wildly on the glass wall, crying out "ELA-A-AINE!!!" Only this Elaine goes through with it....
"Cath, she stands / With a well-intentioned man / But she can't relax / With his hand on the small of her back." On-line comments describe this as an abusive marriage, but I don't see that -- Cath's groom means well; a husband should be able to touch his wife like this. Her tension, however, spells trouble in paradise. You can even see it in the wedding photos: "And as the flashbulbs burst / She holds a smile / Like someone would hold a crying child." I love that description of her tense ambivalence.
And in the chorus, Gibbard soon explains why she's agreed to marry Mr. Not-Quite-Right: "'Cause your heart was dying fast, and you didn't know what to do." This is like a sequel to "The Sound of Settling," another great Death Cab song, from 2003's Transatlanticism. In the 60s we campaigned against merely "settling"; our 21st-century offspring are a lot more skeptical about that.
Sitting in the pew, our singer cynically deconstructs the ceremony -- Cath's "hand-me-down wedding dress," as the "whispers that it won't last roll up and down the pews." But I suspect he isn't the objective observer he pretends to be, as he declares in the bridge -- reverb suspended for a moment of honesty -- "you said your vows, and you closed the door / On so many men who would have loved you more." Hmmm....like the singer of this song?
Maybe not. At the end, he defends Cath's decision against all those whispers, claiming that they'd have done the same if their hearts were dying like hers. But I don't know, he's left us with a pretty bleak vision of Cath's future, all repressed hopes and buried dreams. The arrangement is tinged with despair, full of harsh guitar clang, unresolved chords, echoey vocal reverbs, and pregnant pauses between lines.
And oh, I'm waiting for that last-minute backdoor entrance of one of those men who could have loved her more. But then I remember the final shot of The Graduate -- Ben and Elaine riding away on a city bus, their grins of triumph fading, staring in opposite directions, scared shitless. Happy endings? Not on this planet.