The Eiffel Tower, Built to Smaller Scale
a bottle song for a bottle place
Title: Little Bribes
Artist: Death Cab for Cutie
Album: The Open Door [EP]
In television writing, a bottle episode is a self-contained installment, in which an entire story is told in a confined setting. Bottle episodes are often limited to one or two basic sets and feature little more than the show’s primary characters. Because of those constraints, for a bottle episode to work, the writing must be exceptional.
Bottle episodes are singles.
In 2009, Death Cab for Cutie released The Open Door, which featured “Little Bribes,” a single recorded in isolation for the EP. “Little Bribes” interrogates the absurdity of Las Vegas, and that’s appropriate, because Las Vegas is the geographic equivalent of a bottle episode: a confined setting where, for a few days, anyone can feel like the star of their own story.
Ben Gibbard addresses the oddity of Vegas with characteristic charm. His description of slot machines and their players is perfectly whimsical:
You pretend that every slot machine is a robot amputee waving hello / the people stare into their eyes and they feed them little bribes and then they go
Despite the continued lightheartedness of his tone, Gibbard goes on to describe Vegas as a manipulative, illicit, surveillance state populated by empty-eyed employees and desperate, greedy tourists. That sounds bad! And yet, it’s kind of required to maintain the façade that you’re the star of the city’s bottle episode, isn’t it?
Vegas wants you to imagine that it’s an entire world unto itself, filled with bustling activity and memorable characters. But the city is an isolated location in the desert that contains recreations of more exciting places. Its pyramid and Eiffel Tower are miniature models and the beautiful, eccentric people who populate its industry—some of them literal illusionists!—are merely plugging away at their jobs. In many ways, the city is, appropriately, a mirage.
So is the romance at the center of “Little Bribes”:
you said that you were lonely / and then we kissed like lonely people do / you said the city has a beating heart / that pushes people down the boulevard / and they’re all hoping for a wish fulfilled / in a desert for a dollar bill / those foolish dreams, you know they plague me still / oh, come on
The story of “Little Bribes” is a bottle episode about emptiness, both inside and out. But, like any memorable bottle episode, the writing here is exquisite. The song thrives on a pulsing beat, a bouncing melody, and perfectly balanced guitar lines. It’s full of heart. And that contrast with the subject matter is a nice little sleight of hand.
I give “Little Bribes” five out of five stars.