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Pop Goes the Heartbreak

Death Cab for Cutie lays the sorrow on sweetly.

When it comes to songwriting, there probably aren't that many points on which indie rockers and Elton John agree. Still, one of Sir Elton's most famous phrases seems wholly in step with the current philosophy of underground music makers: A sad song says so much.

Optimism fueled the power-to-the-people rock of the '60s; rage drove the punk revolution. Today, from the blue ballads of heartbroken emo bands to the suicidal sounds of acoustic-guitar-toting singer-songwriters, the face of modern fringe music is likely to wear a frown.

The indie pop-rockers in Death Cab for Cutie wear this mantle well. Even though a cursory listen to the combo's sound recalls the easygoing tradition of the Beatles (in a sunny mood), a closer examination reveals the pervasive echoes of desperation, angst and loneliness. With this approach, singer/guitarist Benjamin Gibbard, bassist Nicholas Harmer, keyboard player Christopher Walla and drummer Michael Schorr aren't exactly doing anything new: After all, melodies that make well-planned pulls on the heartstrings have been around as long as music has. But Death Cab for Cutie's music resonates with a sense of postmodern depression.

"I definitely think the sadness thing is more in our generation, at least with my peers," Harmer says. "I think in some respects, the promises of all the generations before us have all been sort of really eroded. There's not a lot of magic left in the world. There's this general sadness about the world and what life is supposed to bring to you. I think that people are realizing that happiness definitely doesn't lie in a Ferrari or a mansion. Maybe happiness doesn't even lie in being married -- there are so many divorces. Where does it come from, what does it mean?"

While many social pundits look at the alienation and apathy of the slacker generation as proof of some sort of cultural stagnation, Harmer sees it more as a reaction to the futility of countless revolutions in art and music. From hippies to punks to grunge rockers, he says, he's seen every one of rock's social uprisings fade away without causing any serious change in the status quo.

"The fallout from that is a general sort of sadness, like, 'Holy crap. This world is fucking screwed, and it doesn't really seem like there's much hope. There's nothing that can really happen,'" Harmer says. "Ultimately, I, for the most part, feel powerless, and that feeling of powerlessness shifts for me not into some sort of rage. Now I just go, 'Fuck, there's nothing I can do.' It really bums me out."

Such a sense of resignation could easily lead Death Cab for Cutie to crank out dreary soundscapes that are as bleak as Harmer's view on social progress. Instead, on Forbidden Love, its latest EP for Barsuk Records, the band dashes out melodies and hooks that owe as much to feel-good pop as they do to mope rock. There's a strange balance that the band strikes in its music: The sounds are so light, airy and accessible that the graver undertones are sometimes easy to miss.

This duality -- which is well represented in the band's name, a mixture of morbidity and cartooniness -- has increased Death Cab's appeal to a wider swath of fans. While Forbidden Love drew raves from indie publications and more mainstream music magazines such as Alternative Press, it also scored some ink in the high-school glamour rag Seventeen. Such mainstream acclaim might have sent certain image-conscious indie bands into a tailspin, but the members of Death Cab for Cutie aren't wasting their time worrying about the hipness quotient of their supporters.

"I think that bands that get into that realm, it stops becoming about the music," Harmer says. "It becomes more about who you are hanging out with, and what people's perception of you is. I just think that is kind of icky. It becomes very judgmental and too overly critical about what you're really doing. What you're doing is playing music. You're making something, and you're out there, and you're performing for people who are coming to see something they enjoy, for whatever reason."Death Cab for Cutie, a brooding pop band that's smooth enough to win over both teenyboppers and underground trendsetters, is enough to make any music fan crack a smile -- that pesky generational despair notwithstanding.

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