Brixton Academy, and I’m in the land of the checked shirt. I, too, am wearing a checked shirt. All around are guys and girls whose skin looks as though sunlight would shine straight through it, standing pretty much stock-still with their expressions locked in fervent emotion. On stage are Death Cab For Cutie, and they’re at the close of their set.
Back up three hours and wretchedly-named support act The Head and the Heart are just beginning theirs. And they’re fine, if a little too pastoral, as though they’ve just emerged from the barn having spent the last year sealed inside with only some Arcade Fire and Fleet Foxes records to supplement the hay. There’s nothing wrong with influences, of course, but regardless of their musicianship – which is pretty striking in places – The Head and the Heart’s songs are, at present, just a bit too insubstantial to really resonate.
Which isn’t a criticism that could ever be levelled at the headliners, who have pretty much spent the last fourteen years resonating with their audience through lyrics that don’t so much wear their heart as throw it aggressively at anyone who comes near. But whilst frontman Ben Gibbard admits early on to a hint of melancholy – this is the final date of Death Cab’s European tour – there’s little that’s mawkish about their performance. Indeed, the band are anything but feeble this evening, their sound uncharacteristically muscular and pretty damned loud: if our hearts aren’t broken by the close, our ears probably are.
It’s a lengthy set, spanning their back catalogue pretty evenly albeit with the expected – and slightly regrettable – emphasis upon this year’s Codes and Keys: certainly it’s the recent material that forms the weakest parts of the show. The strongest bookend it, with opener ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’ taking its time to unravel, the band settling into a groove so hypnotic that it’s almost a shame when Ben Gibbard’s vocals disturb it several minutes later. It’s an impressive start, low-key and introspective with a feel of spontaneity perhaps lacking from what follows.
To be fair, they do play something near to 25 songs: a set this dense doesn’t have room for spontaneity. But it’s hard to escape a measure of disengagement around the midpoint, as the riffs start to mesh a little and Gibbard’s suburban themes gain a measure of deja vu: new tracks ‘You Are A Tourist’ and ‘Underneath The Sycamore’, played back to back, sound like photocopies of earlier songs, like a tribute band clutching a folder of worn, faded sheet music.
But the highpoints, they more than atone. From the choked-up nostalgia of ‘Summer Skin’ to the doomed nuptials of ‘Cath’ and the sweet, sad devotion of ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark’ – delivered solo by Gibbard but accompanied by most of the Academy – few bands nail pathos with so much flair for melody. New Moon OST track ‘Meet Me On The Equinox’, one of the few lines of defence for the Twilight franchise, is pleasingly hard-edged whilst Plans’ ‘Marching Bands Of Manhattan’ showcases Death Cab For Cutie’s rhythm section, Jason McGerr’s drumming of particular, bracing note.
Only an ill-advised cover of Ride’s ‘Twisterella’ falls short, but we can overlook that because it’s all just building to the closer. So what if we all know it’s going to be ‘Transatlanticism’, that it’s always Transatlanticism: this is a track that every band should end with, every time they play. For nearly eight minutes it builds, verses dropping away as the guitars swell around the single lyrical refrain before, finally, it breaks, camera-phones shaking as their owners trade posterity for the moment. Though they’ve played this song a thousand times before Gibbard, too, seems lost, lurching for his microphone with an urgency rarely seen with bands seven albums in, and for a brief moment Brixton feels somewhere else, somewhere smaller, warmer, more intense. And then, of course, it ends, and the stage is left to shadows.