In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Songs that feature twisted takes on the family unit for Unconventional Families Week.
Death Cab For Cutie, “Styrofoam Plates” (2001)
A fair amount of dysfunction courses through Death Cab For Cutie’s music, typically the personal variety related to romantic entanglements. The band’s sophomore album, 2000’s We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes, had its most pronounced dysfunction to date: the devastating two-part lament of what could have been in “Company Calls” and “Company Calls Epilogue,” the nebulous dishonesty of “405,” the poor decisions in “Title Track,” the bitterness of “For What Reason,” and a general cloud that hung over everything. But We Have The Facts is seldom direct. As frontman Ben Gibbard told Under The Radar in 2002:
In the past, I’ve always tried to cloak stuff and dance around the meanings in the lyrics… I’m starting to come around to more straightforward lyric writing; I’ve been trying to do more of a Raymond Chandler thing, just keep it really simple… I’d hope that I’m starting to move into some lyrical direction that’s not a single subject over and over again.
Gibbard gave that interview while promoting 2001’s The Photo Album, and that directness is most obvious on that album’s “Styrofoam Plates.” There’s no cloaking the meaning of lines like “You’re a disgrace to the concept of family” or “He was a bastard in life, thus a bastard in death.” Painful family dysfunction seethes through “Styrofoam Plates,” a bitter kiss-off to a dead man who barely qualified as an absentee father—more of a “donor of seeds to a poor single mother that would raise us alone.”
“Styrofoam Plates” remains Death Cab’s angriest, most cutting song, an indictment that sears with personal invective—only it wasn’t personal. The story isn’t about Gibbard’s father, but a friend whose experiences he chronicled in the song. “A lot of the song is kind of verbatim things that he would tell me about,” Gibbard said in an interview at the time. “I ended up going to the funeral.” (Gibbard asked the friend’s permission to write about it.)
Fourteen years later, Gibbard has, as he’d hoped, moved in a lyrical direction that doesn’t revisit a single subject over and over again. He’s much more direct than he ever was on Death Cab’s early albums. In the time that has passed since the band released The Photo Album, it’s come to be considered a transitional record, the bridge between the dreariness of We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes and the masterful Transatlanticism. “Styrofoam Plates” is the punch in the gut that arrives late, but aches long afterward.