It's possible that Ben Gibbard the nerdy, boyish-voiced crooner who fronts Death Cab for Cutie will be looked back on as the achy-breaky voice of a generation: a Frank Sinatra for MySpace.com bloggers, a James Taylor for moony mall rats in Hot Topic T-shirts. Even Hollywood seems convinced. Gibbard's band is revered by The O.C.'s sensitive Seth Cohen. And in a memorable Six Feet Under episode, Claire Fisher and her art-school pals, high as kites, sing the ''I need you so much closer'' chorus of Death Cab's ''Transatlanticism'' in a swoon of group empathy. You know that, years from now, they'll hear this song and like many real people be transported to a simpler time.
Gibbard's high tenor is remarkable, vulnerable, and Zen-like, and it made for two of 2003's best records: Death Cab's Transatlanticism, and Give Up, by the singer's electro-pop side project, the Postal Service. Plans is Death Cab's major-label debut after seven indie years, and it's good. But it will likely be dogged for not measuring up to its predecessors.
As albums, Transatlanticism and Give Up seemed greater than their parts, perfectly paced song cycles about love wracked by distance and time's march. Plans addresses similar themes, but without the same narrative glue or shape. Then there's the sound: The lush arrangements are long on hothouse organs and pianos, but short on the squirmy guitars and squirrelly beats that, on Gibbard's best work, offset his sweet voice and borderline-maudlin poetics with a sense of emotional danger.
Still, there's a lot to love here. ''Marching Bands of Manhattan,'' another Gibbard song about absence making the heart grow weaker, rises from a brooding melody with the image of a heartsick dreamer elevating Manhattan. The ba-da-ba-da-ba-das in the hooky single ''Soul Meets Body'' help vindicate overcooked lyrics. The acoustic ''I Will Follow You Into the Dark'' is a moving meditation on love and death from a lapsed Catholic.
Finally, ''Your Heart Is an Empty Room'' and ''Crooked Teeth'' equal anything the band has done. The former is a compact psychoanalysis of a destructively restless lover. The latter is a collapsing-relationship song that soars on a Beatles-tinted melody. ''I'm a war of head versus heart,'' Gibbard declares on the song's bridge. When bandmate/producer Chris Walla follows with Plans' most aggressive guitar outburst, it's clear that Death Cab are at their best when that war is raging, or at least simmering. Plans is more of a détente.