Travel Just by Folding a Map: The Geography of Death Cab

By Alex Rice

From “Title Track” to “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” Death Cab for Cutie singer/guitarist Ben Gibbard has displayed a career-long fascination with the legendary writer Jack Kerouac in his lyrics. Judging by the geographical ground covered by Gibbard, it’s no surprise that he’s an acolyte of the On the Road author. These eights songs form a coast-to-coast indie-rock travelogue, rivaling the scope of even Kerouac’s greatest adventures!

“Song for Kelly Huckaby,” 2000

Gibbard and Death Cab guitarist Chris Walla took a road trip to San Francisco with a friend named, you guessed it, Kelly Huckaby for the singer’s 21st birthday, and three years later both the trip and their companion were immortalized on The Forbidden Love EP. “Waking up to the sound of 5 A.M to take my turn at the wheel / Climbed up Shasta, oh how the engine ached,” Gibbard remembers over one of Walla’s sludgiest riffs. Situated near the Oregon border, Mount Shasta is California’s fifth-highest peak.

“Little Fury Bugs,” 2000

“Little Fury Bugs,” from We Have the Facts, is one of the slowest songs that Death Cab for Cutie has ever laid to tape, and it doesn’t spice up the downbeat tempo with the most optimistic worldview: “You'll discover that casual friends kept notes in their pockets to remember your name,” Gibbard says. The second verse tells of a car that sputters to a similar crawl, making for what is possibly the only Midwestern reference in the entire DCFC catalog: “Through the evening, the engine kept on until we hit Chicago and decided to stop.”

“Lowell, MA,” 2000

Gibbard’s early DCFC lyrics rarely left the Pacific Northwest, but this one finds him on the opposite coast. “Last views of cityscapes crumbling,” he sings as he speeds away from the fourth biggest city in Massachussetts. This We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes rocker takes its name from the birthplace of Jack Kerouac, whose words were put to music by Ben and Son Volt frontman Jay Farrar for the 2009 tribute album One Fast Move or I’m Gone.

“Coney Island,” 2001

On the penultimate track from The Photo Album, Death Cab singer Ben Gibbard is sitting on a ride after hours at Brooklyn’s famous amusement park, listening to the waves of the Atlantic and romanticizing “roller coaster screams from summers past.” The last two lines either belie his plaintive melancholy or reinforce his boardwalk permanence: “Brooklyn will fill in the beach eventually/Everyone will go except me.”

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“Styrofoam Plates,” 2001

This first-person diatribe to a deadbeat dad is actually about the deceased father of one of Gibbard’s friends. “Thirteen years old in the suburbs of Denver / Standing in line for Thanksgiving dinner at the Catholic church,” Ben sings before reaching an astute conclusion, as the guitars swell around him. “A bastard in life, thus a bastard in death.”

 

“Grapevine Fires,” 2008

A fiery apocalypse never sounded so sweet. The fourth single off Narrow Stairs, Death Cab’s first number one album, gets its name from the local nickname for greater Los Angeles’s Tejon Pass. “Grapevine Fires” tells the true story of Gibbard and a lady friend drinking wine (the lyrics reference 1998’s “Champagne from a Paper Cup”), watching the inferno from a hilltop cemetery, finding a strange sense of peace in her daughter care-freely dancing among the dead. “It was a really interesting example of youth having a way with death,” he recalled on VH1 Storytellers. 

“The Ghosts of Beverly Drive,” 2015

Much like 2001’s The Photo Album, the lyrics of 2015’s Kintsugi are firmly rooted in the City of Angels. On much of DCFC’s eighth record, though, he’s tracing the chalk outline of a lifeless relationship. “I don’t know why I return to the scenes of these crimes,” Ben bemoans on this deceptively upbeat single, setting the table for a lyrical and literal return to Seattle on 2018’s Thank You for Today.

 

“Gold Rush,” 2018

“The city is my home / Construction noise all day long,” Gibbard reported on “We Laugh Indoors” in 2001. By the lead single off 2018’s Thank You for Today, his Seattle neighborhood had been transformed past the point of recognition by flashy restaurants and luxury condos. “Our haunts have taken flight and been replaced by construction sites,” he mourns on this breezy, backup vocal-laden number.