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.


Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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