“Pity and Fear” by Death Cab for Cutie
It is easy to presume that on “Pity and Fear”, the vocalist is speaking to a romantic relationship(s) that he is in. But the somewhat convoluted explanation of this piece as provided by Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard suggests that the narrator may in fact be singing about himself, i.e. this being akin to a soliloquy.
And all the song’s lyrics considered, that latter theory would perhaps be more reasonable considering that the second verse in particular reads a lot like an exercise in self-criticism. Or if anything, perhaps the first verse is about an external addressee, i.e. a lover, while the second is more centered on the vocalist himself.
Subject of Verse 1
The reason why it would make reasonable sense that the subject of the first verse is the narrator’s lover is because said individual is described as ‘the stranger lying next to him’. Such a statement would imply that whoever this person is, he or she and the vocalist are in a close relationship. A relationship in which they both often sleep in the same bed together.
But at the same time, the singer notes that this is someone he barely knows. That’s an assertion that can be taken a number of ways, especially if this is a lover he’s talking about, which would be the general presumption as far as sleeping with someone goes.
But in any event, this individual is depicted as basically sneaking away from the vocalist, i.e. out of his bed, during the “pre-dawn” hours. And it is feasible that Gibbard is in fact talking about a transient lover. But if such is the case, the way the lyrics come off is as if he has experienced such an event more than once.
The chorus then goes on to make a couple of subsequent statements. One is that “there are no tears”, which kinda makes sense in the context of two people sleeping together and then promptly going their separate ways. That is to say that such a scenario is fundamentally a romantic relationship devoid of genuine affection. And therefore when the two parties involved break up, so to speak, there is no love lost or “no tears” shed.
“Pity and Fear”
Ben then goes to say that in place of such emotions is rather “pity and fear”. Now no matter how casual a bonking may be, that would be an unusual statement to make in such a context. And along with that exists a “vast ravine in between” presumably the singer and addressee. This in and of itself would make sense as far as casual sex goes, i.e. the two individuals involved, metaphorically speaking, not having any type of true connection.
The Subject of Verse 2
And the second verse is even more potentially perplexing than the first. But as stated earlier, at least it is abundantly clear this time around that the singer is talking about himself. And for starters, he seems to be saying something like at times he disappoints himself, i.e. breaking his own promise to exert discipline in certain matters.
Such a statement would definitely make sense if for whatever reason he is speaking to, say a pledge to stop sleeping with strangers or women he doesn’t truly love.
Relatedly, Ben then proceeds to espouse a characteristic akin to resiliency, i.e. standing firm and enduring relationships/situations to see which parties involved are truly faithful to the cause. Or as he puts it, if you yourself lack the fortitude to tough it out, then you won’t be around long enough to know who’s truly who. And by the way this is an interpersonal idea that is logical even beyond the realm of romance.
To reiterate, the actual lyrics of this song, despite the track being over four minutes in length, are very terse. And when you mix metaphorical, unspecific lingo with, let’s say abbreviated lyrics, you get something interesting. What you get is a piece like this that requires imaginative and theoretical interpretations.
And when we run into such tracks, i.e. a song whose lyrics are difficult to understand, usually the artist’s explanation, if any, lends to an easier interpretation.
With “Pity and Fear”, the quick way out would be to just say that this tune is about promiscuity or adultery or something like that. But based on Gibbard’s aforenoted description of this piece, apparently it has nothing to do with romance at all. It may rather be centered on the relationship dynamic between the members of Death Cab for Cutie.
And ultimately what it all leads back to is a less-than-favorable perception of self. And even if this is not a soliloquy throughout, based on that understanding, then the purpose of the unfaithful addressee in the first verse would not be to point to the notion of the vocalist being lonely but instead the concept of him not being unliked by others, or something like that.
Either way, that intended understanding of this song probably isn’t something most listeners are going to pick up on simply from the lyrics.
Death Cab for Cutie
Death Cab for Cutie is a rock band from Washington state. Within a 20 year timespan, from 1998 to 2018, they managed to put out 9 studio albums. This track is from the sixth of these projects, “Narrow Stairs” (2008). From a critical perspective the project in question is the band’s most-successful album to date. It was so good it topped the Billboard 200 and Canadian Albums Chart.
“Pity and Fear”
“Pity and Fear” came out as the penultimate track on the 11 song standard playlist of the aforementioned album. It was released through Atlantic Records and Barsuk Records on 12 May 2008. And to note, it was not subsequently issued as one of the project’s singles.
Three of the Death Cab for Cutie band members that participated on “Narrow Stairs” are still rocking with the band to this day. They are:
- Ben Gibbard (vocalist)
- Nick Harmer (bassist)
- Jason McGerr (drummer)
Meanwhile guitarist Chris Walla, who was down with the crew from its early days of the late 1990s, left in 2014.
It was also Chris Walla who produced “Pity and Fear”. The song itself was written by Ben Gibbard.
This track famously ends on an abrupt note. And as the story goes, Death Cab for Cutie did not intend for it to be that way. Instead the device they were using for recording malfunctioned at that point. However, they liked the way said abrupt ending sounded and retained it.