When indie band uber alles Death Cab for Cutie signed a major-label deal last year, only die-hard fans seemed unduly troubled. Selling out isn't what it used to be, after all, and Death Cab had already jumped the proverbial couch by appearing as themselves on an episode of "The O.C." nearly 10 years to the day after the Flaming Lips' Peach Pit apostasy.
A band that likes to wear cardigans and sing gently philosophical songs about dying, Death Cab has commercial prospects that may not seem outwardly promising. But it's not hard to imagine what Atlantic Records, which recently released the band's major-label debut, "Plans," sees in them. Besides their former compatriots the Shins, they're one of the few erstwhile indie bands to inspire real affection, thanks mostly to their stunning, and stunningly romantic, 2003 breakthrough album, "Transatlanticism."
"Plans" sounds a lot like it -- not better but not appreciably worse.
There's more emphasis on synthesizers and electronic dance pop (chalk it up to the influence of frontman Ben Gibbard's side gig in the Postal Service) and, perhaps perversely, less emphasis on up-tempo potential singles. "Plans" mostly occupies itself with unobtrusive keyboard and piano ballads, with notable exceptions: The record-opening "Marching Bands of Manhattan" is peppy and organ-driven, and first single "Soul Meets Body" offers singalong choruses and the disc's only actual beat. Obviously intended to suggest a newer-wave version of "Transatlanticism's" minor hit "The Sound of Settling," it's the least interesting song here. (Though not the worst: "Someday You Will Be Loved," which finds Gibbard consoling a long-ago one-night stand who can't get over him, makes Kanye West seem modest in comparison.)
"Plans" is otherwise a monument to musical tastefulness, more interested (and not wrongly so) in showcasing Gibbard's lyrics than in uncovering new territory. Gibbard is one of the best lyricists of his generation -- woeful and direct and impressively economical -- and "Plans" does well to get out of his way.
The disc's centerpiece track, "I Will Follow You Into the Dark," is a tremulous ballad about death ("If Heaven and Hell decide / That they both are satisfied / Illuminate the no's on their vacancy signs / If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks / Then I'll follow you into the dark") sung with only acoustic accompaniment.
As it turns out, "Plans" has lots of tremulous ballads about death ("What Sarah Said" is another, more astringent example) but none this good. And Gibbard, who's preternaturally self-aware, even for an indie rocker, sounds like he knows it.
More than ever, Gibbard's high, warbly voice suggests a curious hybrid of Freedy Johnston and Psychedelic Furs frontman Richard Butler. It's not for nothing that Death Cab covers Johnston's "Bad Reputation" as an iTunes-only addendum to "Plans." Even casual fans will find it's worth seeking out as a curiosity piece, though by now its spiked cocktail of earnestness and menace is the sort of thing Gibbard can handle with his eyes shut.