May 19, 2006

The Gift of Memory




About twelve minutes into Plans, Death Cab for Cutie’s current CD, the listener realizes that Benjamin Gibbard must be a post-structuralist trapped in an “alt-rock” limbo as he intones his second verse to “Different Names for the Same Thing.” Ostensibly a song about travel to other lands, we cannot rule out the possibility that this deceptively simple pop tune engages the fragile essence of linguistics as it flirts with the ambiguity of language. The sparse piano arrangement (which vaguely recalls John Lennon’s “Isolation”) diverts one’s attention as Gibbard sings:

"the boundaries of language I quietly cursed
and all the different names for the same thing"


The post-structural understanding of language contends that “meaning” is never fully present in any one concept, or word, and in fact is “infinitely deferred.” This “deferral” exposes a limitless “excess” of meanings, “different names,” or signifiers, for the same “things,” or signifieds. It is probably no coincidence that Gibbard’s chorus reverts to a simpler and more ominous, line, which I hear as "deferring names, deferring names" as the song fades.

Gibbard’s naked grasp of these kinds of limits for communication under post-structural rules also reveals his stark perception of the vacuity of identities within “pop” culture, as well as the emptiness of individual identity within a “pop music” model.

The establishment of one’s identity as an “artist” in popular music is relative to one’s chosen “vehicle.” Conventional models such as “singer-songwriter” and “pop vocal group” are further divided into sub-categories, i.e. "alt-rock," "urban contemporary," etc. Working within a group setting, a writer of songs subsumes his individuality to the group identity and becomes a “cog in a wheel,” part of a team effort. This does not deny one’s unique perceptions or projections of ideas within this framework, as the now-familiar “sole” songwriting credits will attest on numerous liner notes. Nonetheless, this work is done from a perspective of denial, from the invisibility of a lone “voice” awash in group sound. This is the emptiness of which Gibbard sings, the “boundaries” of speech and denied ownership.

There is duality afoot here, as well. In “Soul Meets Body” the singer cries out for feeling, a desire for an emotive connection to something other than post-modernity and slacker irony, for “a chance of finding a place where they’re far more suited than here.” The struggle between ego and id gives fresh expression to the singer’s identity crisis in "Crooked Teeth” as he realizes that his conscious “self” will be inevitably usurped by his wilder and untamed "soul":

I’m a war of head versus heart and it’s always this way
my head is weak and my heart always speaks before I know what it will say


The “head” stands in for the “presence,” the conscious self-awareness of one’s authenticity; the “heart,” as its polar opposite, “speaks” through actions motivated by the impulse of instinct, often prior to knowing or control. The “recording artist” inhabits a darkness of “invisibility,” at once “here” through the audible recorded sound, yet “absent” from our space. This dual nature is part of the “magic” of recorded music, as its “existence” is based on our memory of the discontinuous notes, one after another, in a narrative of melody. So it is that, as uneasy inhabitant of a “vehicle” called Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard accepts the limits of his “pop” language with charming angst, to craft his “deferrals” of identity as a testament to the “pop songwriter” as the binary opposites of the “presence” of performance and the “absence” of the recorded art.

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