Death Cab for Cutie, “Summer Skin” from Plans (2005): One Track Mind

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A remarkably intuitive song, full of very adult emotion and haunting insight, from a band with such a frankly ridiculous name. “Summer Skin,” in fact, might just be all the more powerful for the lowered expectations that come from a group actually called Death Cab for Cutie.

I don’t care if they were a staple on the soundtrack to the popular teen drama “The O.C.” I hate the name.

But, with just that much conviction, I love this tune. (This has happened before.)

The narrative begins as a series of summertime’s childhood delights are recalled through Ben Gibbard’s delicately constructed lyrics. But from those stimulating, if safe, environs — peeling sunburns, squeaky swings, tall grass and friendship — grows a complex realization about the passage of time, and the changing of hearts over that time.

I don’t recall a single care,
Gibbard sings in a fragile, almost elliptical falsetto

Just greenery and humid air
Then Labor Day came and went
And we shed what was left of our summer skin

There is, by the track’s end, a sweetly recalled memory, one of timeless innocence, but also a mature melancholy. This is a story told from an adult vista. “Summer Skin” is keenly aware that seasons change. It’s a song about youth, but really it’s all about growing up.

I was surprised, when reading a review of Death Cab for Cutie’s new release — Narrow Stairs, which debuted this week on the top of the album charts behind the powerful eight-and-a-half-minute single “I Will Possess Your Heart” — that it has already been three years since I first heard “Summer Skin.”

It still packs a dense wallop. The melodic yet staccato sound bed works as another counterpoint — and a still deeper dimension: This little-drummer-boy beat propels “Summer Skin,” but a sinewy bass line and elegiac piano signature actually accomplish the more emotional punctuation.

That provides conflict to match the subject — and is in keeping with the style of, say, the best Lennon/McCartney collaborations. Later, I decided that its tone reminded me of the best of 1970s-era Elton John.

Over time, “Summer Skin,” meaningful and idiosyncratic, just continues to find new ways to illuminate.


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