Monday, August 8, 2011

Critical Confusion

by Conroy

Death Cab for Cutie playing live
Last night I went to see Death Cab for Cutie at Merriweather Post Pavilion. I'm a big fan of the band; this is the second time I've seen them this summer. DCFC (for short) is touring in support of their latest album, Codes and Keys, which was released at the end of May. The lead single, "You Are a Tourist", was a big hit on on "alternative" and rock radio, and even gained some airplay on mainstream stations (and VH1). I like the song, I like the album. That's no surprise, as I noted, I'm a fan (see my ten favorite DCFC songs below). 

What I'm not going to do is make a quick judgment about the value of the music, the depth of songwriting, the thematic cohesion of the album. I'm not going to compare it to DCFC's other albums, not yet anyway. I know right away that it's good, anything more will take time to realize. Why? Well, as I with written before (here and here), you have to wary when making quick judgments about art. It takes time, many years, to fully evaluate a work of art.

But then I'm not a professional critic.

Critical Confusion
Critics, some of whom get paid for their opinions (good for them), are quick to make, in fact must make, quick judgments. I'm always cautious when reading these first reviews. To wit, consider a couple of reviews of Codes and Keys:

Evan Sawdey, PopMatters -
 " was inevitable that Death Cab for Cutie would eventually hit a wall - after all, there are only so many...tricks you can pull before everyone realizes you're merely rehashing all of you old material-and with Codes and Keys...the bottom has dropped out almost completely."
He continues,
" daring as they want to bill Codes and Keys as...this is the sound of Death Cab at their most generic, disjointed, and disinterested. It's a hard pill to swallow, but the truth is this: Codes and Keys is the worst album of their career."
Would it be an understatement to call that a negative review? Here's another opinion,

Jon Pareles, New York Times -
"...The songs still brood, but they will themselves toward hope. Even better, the music has cleared up and found its momentum again."
 And more,

"Mr. Gibbard sings, 'I’m swallowed in sound as it echoes through me/I’m renewed,' and the music makes it easy to share his optimism. This album doesn’t try to rejuvenate Death Cab for Cutie by reverting to the sound the band had in the late 1990s. Now, it’s a band of grown-ups still eager to evolve."

What? These are exactly opposite reviews. What have we learned? Is the album a tired retread of previous themes and sounds or is the album a demonstration of optimism, re-invigoration, and growth? It can't be both. I could understand if one reviewer felt the album was great and another felt it was merely good. But not when one thinks it's great and the other execrable.

In reality, I think you'll either like the album or be indifferent. If you aren't a fan of DCFC, this album won't change your mind. If you're already a fan, you'll enjoy this album. Find whatever deeper meaning you want, or that you think songwriter Ben Gibbard is trying to express.

Anyway, my larger point is beware the critical judgment. Years from now we'll know if Codes and Keys was a great album or merely another disc in the DCFC catalog. (Fortunately, today's music fans can listen to each song and album before they commit to buy.)

Meaningless Words
Two other thoughts, first, watch out for the review that uses a lot of words to convey nothing, this is  favorite trick of critics. Here's an example from Steven Thomas Erlewine of about The Killers second album Sam's Town, I quote at length:
"Yes, it's cobbled together from elements shamelessly stolen from Springsteen, U2, Echo & the Bunnymen, Bowie, Queen, Duran Duran, and New Order, but nobody on Earth would have thought of throwing these heroes of 1985 together, because they would have instinctively known that it wouldn't work. But not the Killers! They didn't let anything stop their monumental misconception; they were able to indulge to their hearts' content -- even hiring U2/Depeche Mode producers Alan Moulder and Flood to help construct their monstrosity, which gives their half-baked ideas a grandeur to which they aspire but don't deserve. But even if the music doesn't really work, it's hard not to listen to it in slack-jawed wonderment, since there's never been a record quite like it -- it's nothing but wrongheaded dreams, it's all pomp but no glamour, it's clich├ęs sung as if they were myths. Every time it tries to get real, it only winds up sounding fake, which means it's the quintessential Vegas rock album from the quintessential Vegas rock band."
That tells you nothing, other than maybe Mr. Erlewine's distaste for what The Killers(!) do. I mean, I don't care who you are, nobody on Earth can tell me what a combination of "Springsteen, U2, Echo & the Bunnymen, Bowie, Queen, Duran Duran, and New Order" would actually sound like. Though if it sounds like Sam's Town, then I'm happy enough.

Finally, this caution about critics goes for movies and books, and all other critically-reviewed art. Do yourself a favor and consult  at least a few views. Hopefully that will give a general sense of whether a work is worth the investment of your energy.


Conroy's Top 10 Death Cab for Cutie Songs (in reverse order)
10. Marching Bands of Manhattan
9. Some Boys
8. Grapevine Fires
7. Bixby Canyon Bridge
6. Blacking Out the Friction
5. A Movie Script Ending - Top 250 Song
4. Someday You Will Be Loved - Top 250 Song
3. The Sound of Settling - Top 250 Song
2. Crooked Teeth - Top 250 Song
1. Cath... - Top 100 Song (55)

Bonus: I'm tempted to write a short story based on the lyrics of one of these songs. Can you guess which one? I'll give you a hint it's one of the songs from Narrow Stairs.


  1. Conroy,

    Aren't you being hypocritical? You list the Best Picture and Top Songs, how do you know any better than these other critics. Don't get me wrong, I like your articles, just wondering if maybe you should be a little less judgmental about other "critics".


  2. Lin,

    Thanks for reading. I'd like to think that I'm no more hypocritical than the next blogger, but let me address your comment. Yes, I have made lists of top songs and declared my pick for the best movie ever.

    However, I've never been blind to the fact that my opinions are just that - opinion. I think I've been adamant about time being the true judge of art. I hope my writing conveys that belief.

    Keep reading and commenting!