It takes a measure of bravery—and a bucketload of self-assuredness—to dive headfirst into the big(ger) time with an album full of mid-tempo, mostly gentle songs about death and longing, even if your band is called Death Cab For Cutie and the world seems primed to receive your next move, no matter what it is. Constant love from The OC and unexpected success for Ben Gibbard's side project The Postal Service surely meant a leg up for his main band's fifth album (and first for a major label), but those two tangential things didn't lead to Plans—it was four terrific indie albums, years of touring, and steady growth of the band members' songwriting and musical skills. Part of the charm of Death Cab's early years, particularly 1999's Something About Airplanes and 2000's watershed We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes, was the sense that what the band members heard in their heads didn't quite make it onto their records. On Plans, Death Cab For Cutie's sonic ambitions—high from the start—sync up with the sound they create, and it turns out they were never overreaching.
"Marching Bands Of Manhattan" sets Plans' tone, both lyrically and musically, beginning gently and optimistically before doubt sets in. Gibbard's voice, which sounds stronger and more confident than ever before, is set high atop humming keyboards and placid guitars that eventually turn, along with the lyrics, to darker days: The song hits a pair of emotional peaks, once with "Sorrow drips into your heart through a pinhole," and again with "Your love is gonna drown," which leads into a Coldplay-esque climax that feels glowingly natural, as if the band had been heading there since 1999. Startlingly, though, "Marching" is about as rocking as Plans gets: There's nothing like "The New Year" or "The Sound Of Settling" from 2003's Transatlanticism. Instead, the bombast is replaced with subtler touches: "Soul Meets Body" (whose title sentiment might've fit in better with The Postal Service) and "Different Names For The Same Thing" grow little electronic wings in place of crashing guitars. Then there's "Crooked Teeth," whose massive chorus feels ripe for the radio.
But Plans is most rewarding in its smallest, bravest moments, in the between-the-hits moments of microscopic beauty: "Your Heart Is An Empty Room" explores longing with serious wistfulness, "I Will Follow You Into The Dark" strips almost all accoutrement for a simple love-in-death moment, and "Someday You Will Be Loved" flips the sentiment of Transatlanticism's angry "Tiny Vessels." Plans' lynchpin, "What Sarah Said," goes all the way out on a limb and jumps up and down, daring it to snap. The song's climactic realization, "Love is watching someone die / So who's gonna watch you die?" might be a sentiment for a Lifetime Channel movie, but it's delivered with such careful sincerity—and in a musical package so emotionally convincing—that it becomes positively transcendent. And that's Death Cab For Cutie's trick: The band wears grandiosity with grace, miniaturizing and polishing big, broad moments into tiny triumphs that, like audible illusions, feel simultaneously intimate and huge.