Listen to this track by Pacific Northwest rainy day indie-rock heroes Death Cab For Cutie. It’s “Title And Registration”, a single as taken from their 2003 landmark record Transatlanticism, their fourth LP released toward the latter half of that year. This tune was released in early 2004, initially as an Internet-only offering, and represented their third and final single from the record.
At the time, this record was almost universally praised. Perhaps one reason this song and the record off of which it comes had such impact is because for all of its freshness at the time, it deals with a very pressing issue that has been a part of pop music for over a century and longer; the bad, old-fashioned break up. Head writer Ben Gibbard demonstrates his a knack for positioning this well-trodden thematic path in an interesting and unassuming way that makes it a song that’s more relatable than most in the “breaking up is hard to do” stakes.
And how does he do that? He starts this song with an everyday task. Looking to find the titular documents, the song’s narrator takes a trip to the car and to the humble glove box, which turns out to hold a whole Pandora’s worth of trouble for him.
By now, there is a teetering stack of pop songs that are all about break ups, often with vicious arguments set to music about how lovers have done narrators wrong or with narrators left to rot alone when love is over, it’s over, it’s OOOOOOVER! These songs are dramatic tales of love’s fiery passion that has turned to hate, or to anguish, or to guilt on an operatic scale, all of which absolutely have their place in the human experience stakes. But “Title And Registration” isn’t about any of that. This song is about a quieter sort of grief that comes with a break up, which is arguably much more common a thing. And in this, “Title And Registration” is one of the most relatable and well-observed break up songs you’re likely to hear by anyone. In it, the song’s narrator finds pictures of a time gone by in his car glove box, documenting a relationship that has since ended but still plagues him. These objects hold an entire world of memories and emotions within them that come flooding back to the narrator, activating troublesome thoughts and inflaming old wounds.
That’s the thing with the aftermath of so many break ups, isn’t it? Most of them aren’t on the scale of a soaring and sorrowful Roy Orbison song. Instead, it’s all the unassuming and mundane stuff that ambushes us when we least expect it. It’s the photos, the books lent to us, the movies seen together, the trips taken together, the in-jokes, the quirks we’ve come to find endearing, the favourite restaurants where romantic meals were once had, and so many other small and important pieces that make up the body of a relationship that help us define it in our own hearts and minds. So, it’s in these artifacts of a life with someone that we can find in our own personal glove boxes where we feel the greatest sense of loss once the relationship is over. With time, we can learn to look wistfully on times spent with past lovers instead of with regret, guilt, or inner turmoil. Yet at the time of a break up and in its aftermath, it’s hard not to feel that our bonds to the memory of a loving relationship that once provided so much joy have turned against us.
This is the emotional landscape of “Title And Registration”. This is the sound of someone who is still grieving, not having gotten over the rise of the hill that will allow him to gain a healthier and more well-rounded insight by the end of that process. That’s what makes it such a powerful song. It doesn’t seek to teach any lessons, to draw lines between right and wrong, to soothe raw and exposed feelings, or to provide catharsis like so many other break up songs do. It’s simply a snapshot of someone discovering how messy and painful life and love can be when relationships come to an end. And yet when we hear a song like this one while we’re experiencing episodes of deep sorrow and emotional upheaval in our own lives, we often find that we are not so alone in our grief as we think. Because in hearing them, we know that we’re not the first people to go through the pain of a break up, and we won’t be the last either.
That’s what sad songs are for.
Death Cab For Cutie is an active band today. You can learn more about their more recent efforts at deathcabforcutie.com.