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Death Cab for Cutie - Narrow Stairs Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 July 2008
ImageThe last time I interviewed Ben Gibbard, he seemed somewhat ashamed to admit that he was a bit stung by all the lukewarm reviews that greeted Death Cab for Cutie’s 2005 breakthrough, Plans. Of course, you’d expect as much for an artist who is obviously a sensitive soul, a man who finds romantic implications in every act, no matter how seemingly mundane. Not that such a backlash was in any way surprising, as the previously prototypical indie rock band was certain to receive such a backlash when they jumped to a major label and found themselves near the top of the Billboard Top 200. But Gibbard seemed so disarmingly hurt by it all; it was as if he never considered it could happen. For those who want to read between the lines, Narrow Stairs, Death Cab’s first album since the divorce from their indie roots, sounds like a breakup album.

An album rooted in despair and dejection, the seventh Death Cab disc finds Gibbard at his most conflicted, writing a series of songs that are smarting with lonesomeness and confusion. There’s a song set at the wedding of a lonely protagonist awkwardly entering a marriage out of fear of being alone (“Cath…”) and one where a spreading fire comes to represent the feelings of impending doom felt by a couple on the precipice of breaking up (“Grapevine Fires”). Even math becomes a metaphor for isolation, as the leftover remainder in the punchy “Long Division” comes to symbolize solitude, and the decision to downsize to a smaller bed becomes a telling sign of a woman’s realization that she’s doomed to a life of loneliness. Even their most sunny songs come with a dark edge, as the breezy power pop of “No Sunlight” masks a coming of age story where the optimism of youth gives way to a mature sense of isolation. But despite a good deal of navel-gazing and downtrodden sentiments, it’s not an entirely somber affair. There’s a good bit of rebelliousness in the mix, too. As if to drive home the point that they aren’t trying to capitalize on their newfound fame, they open the album with two tracks that appear to be designed to chase away anyone with a short attention span. “Bixby Canyon Bridge” awakens through a wall of murmuring ambient feedback, with a smattering of rising and falling guitar notes and neatly distorted guitar tones forming the backdrop for Gibbard’s picturesque walk through Big Sur, searching for the ghost of Jack Kerouac while pondering how “it’s hard to want to stay away, when everyone you meet / they all seem to be asleep.” Buzzy knots of guitar feedback and muffled vocals form an extended bridge before everything fades back to where it started, back to a simple, evocative vocal melody, as Gibbard goes home with the uneasy knowledge that he isn’t any closer to figuring out what he’s looking for than Kerouac was. The following “I Will Possess Your Heart” is even more daring, as the album’s first single builds through four and a half minutes of echo-laden piano lines and walking bass figures before finally arriving at the song’s central hook, rendering the song’s title as more of a threat than a promise.

For such a resolutely inoffensive songwriter as Gibbard, the album’s darker moments are truly startling. It’s not clear who the target of “Talking Bird” is, but Gibbard has rarely sounded so nasty, writing about a person trapped in a cage of confusion and self-abuse, never knowing that the door was open the whole time. “Though you know so few words, they’re on infinite repeat, like your brain can’t keep up with your beak,” he coos innocently over a darkly thudding backdrop of dark guitar strums and tambourine strikes. Even the album’s most whimsical track, the playfully organ-driven “You Can Do Better Than Me” is laced with self-effacement, with the protagonist explaining that he thinks about leaving his lover but that he doesn’t because “you can do better than me, but I can’t do better than you.”

Sonically, the album is a bit more hard-edged than previous Death Cab releases, with the Radiohead-aping “Pity and Fear” almost sounding like Ok Computer outtake, with the melancholy guitar lines exploding into a dark curtain of feedback that drapes itself over thundering drums and desperate yelps. Such moments might scare away the Starbucks set, but they also help create what is probably the most live sounding album in the Death Cab oeuvre, highlighting the band’s otherwise unheralded interaction between guitarist/producer Chris Walla’s richly organic arrangements and the rhythm section’s impeccably tight interplay. More than ever before, drummer Jason McGerr plays a prominent role in the mix, his loose-limbed grooves and always imaginative drum fills adding a crisp backbeat for songs that are occasionally a bit too middle-of-the-road for their own good. But while the production and arrangements are often easy-to-please, it’s hard to say that Gibbard has sugarcoated his writing in any way, as the moody tone of his lyrics is often at odds with the more accessible nature of the songwriting.

Since Narrow Stairs debuted at the top slot of the Billboard Top 200, it’s not likely that Death Cab is going to reclaim their indie cred any time soon. But having weathered the storm of becoming one of the biggest bands in the world when their hearts remained in the sweaty underground clubs that propelled them to their success, they seem to be in a good place, free to make a depressed, slightly moody album that edges them back toward their more experimental roots. But, in the end, Death Cab for Cutie has never really been about experimentation or indie cred; their essential aesthetic is now, as always, songs that resonate with urgency that is understood by every person who has had a broken heart or a crisis of identity. To that extent, Narrow Stairs is as much a Death Cab record as anything they’ve ever done.

A bit more adventurous than the overly staid Plans, Narrow Stairs pretty much sounds like the mostly live-in-the-studio album that it is. Throughout, Gibbard’s vocals are placed high and clear in the mix, allowing his storytelling to come through as it should. Elsewhere, producer/guitarist Walla applies reverb and echo on nearly everything, creating a dry and often intentionally muddled sound, favoring a visceral wall-of-sound thud over the pristine intricacies of their past releases. As such, it doesn’t require high quality equipment to be able to hear the album in all of its instinctual glory, but better speakers will be able to pick apart some of the layers of content.

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