My aunt is a professional photographer; when she lived in Portland, she would shoot a lot of indie bands’ pre-tour shows at a venue there. She’s gotten to know the members of several phenomenal bands in addition to getting to see a bunch of great shows, and one of the bands she’s loved interacting with the most is Death Cab for Cutie. She says they’re a really great bunch of guys; on top of that, they play a lot of good music. I’m not always in the right mood for their melancholy, acoustic songs, but I can appreciate how good they are at capturing crushing emotional agony, especially in the context of relationships.
I’m not sure how well-known it is amongst their songs as, I confess, I’m not particularly familiar with their discography, but “The Ice Is Getting Thinner” is probably my favorite Death Cab song. It begins with an elegantly tragic confession: “We’re not the same, dear, as we used to be/The seasons have changed and so have we.” We all know, of course, that the passage of time and growing up mean that everyone changes. But wrapped up in this line are multiple emotions, namely nostalgia and helplessness. The narrator longs for the “used to be,” but feels that their drifting apart is as inevitable as a change in the weather.
He then goes on to reflect that “there was little we could say, even less we could do/to stop the ice from getting thinner under me and you,” which frames the tension at the core of the song. Thin ice itself is not so much a metaphor for nothingness or for destruction as a symbol of precariousness: those who “tread on thin ice” need to watch their step for fear of plunging below the surface with no hope of finding their way back up. In this song, then, the narrator and the lover who stand on thin ice may stand as physically close to each other as ever. However, they are paralyzed by fear because “there’s nowhere we can go with nothing underneath.” Without a solid base of support, even the smallest gesture of outward affection is a deathly risk.
How, then, did the two become this way? How did they find their way to ice as precarious as this? The song’s absent backstory as well as its metaphorical setting bring to mind the heartbreakingly beautiful film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, particularly the scene where Joel and Clementine visit the frozen lake in Boston on a whim. Joel is drawn to Clementine because of her vivacious spontaneity, yet he is skeptical about the risk of running recklessly on the surface of a lake that is frozen for only a short time of year. Eventually, she convinces him to lie down on the ice with their heads together; they look up at the stars, yet the framing of the shot includes a sharp crack in the ice to foreshadow the collapse of this precarious union.
When Clementine erases Joel from her memory, Joel follows suit, become a stranger to escape the agony of remembering. He can’t stand facing her on thin ice, unable to reach out to the stranger before him, yet haunted by the past that they both had but only he remembers.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and “The Ice Is Getting Thinner” both deal with not only the inevitability of change but also humans’ unwillingness to cope with it. As Death Cab remarks, “The seasons have changed and so have we,” he speaks of two parts of a whole changing separately, not together. Eternal Sunshine’s Clementine is nothing if not impulsive, but as she changes she refuses to allow others to change along with her. The tragedy of all of these characters is not that they change, but that change paralyzes them. They stand in front of those they love, looking at them through ever-changing eyes, but cannot connect for fear of losing themselves. Thin ice cannot be escaped, but it can be avoided with trust. And as Death Cab and Clementine both show us, trust is risky business.