What Death Cab for Cutie does best on Plans, its major-label debut, is capture moments of melancholy -- the dissolution of a summer romance, growing apart from a lover, being dumped by an egotistical jerk -- and analyze them with great honesty.
Take the tear-inducing "What Sarah Said." Solitary piano chords drive a vivid depiction of a sterile hospital, where "each descending peak of the LCD took you a little farther away from me" -- which causes vocalist-lyricist Ben Gibbard to wonder, "Who's gonna watch you die?" Clearly, this band is not selling out to The Man, as many feared Death Cab would do after leaving the cozy confines of its former label, Barsuk. Plans is simply a richer, more ambitious version of the quartet's 2003 breakthrough disc, Transatlanticism. Soft-focus keyboards mope like grounded teenagers, dreamy riffs chime, and Gibbard's vocals rise like helium or whisper with conspiratorial intimacy -- he's forever the sensitive-artist type every girl secretly lusted after in high school. Sure, Plans can't top Transatlanticism, but the awkward beauty in the album's sadness is just as lovely.