So this is how you fall off the tightrope.
It’s always been a struggle for Ben Gibbard and Death Cab for Cutie to balance the two primary demographics that make up fans of the band. On one hand you have the crowd who knows why Lowell, MA is important, believes that debate exposes doubt and has always wanted to drive down the 405. The other group believes that matching eye freckles is a fine sign of true love, wants to live where soul meets body, and will always follow you into the dark (even if you’d rather that they just let you die in peace).
Despite differences, unification for all Death Cab fans comes in the form of a little 2003 release known as Transatlanticism. That album singlehandedly lifted the Gibbard four from the realms of sweater-wearing college-bar-touring indie bands and catapulted them into the forefront of highly marketable, mainstream-accessible, pop culture pleasing bands. It was bold, memorable, expansive, and had immense replay value. This was the standard, and when 2005’s Plans tried to be an improved smoother version of Transatlanticism it only ended up coming off as high-grade, albeit oh-so-tasty, sugar pop for the Atlantic record company audience.
With the release of 2008’s Narrow Stairs DCFC flips the dial away from sugar pop, away from mainstream melodies, but unfortunately still fails to deliver a product that could be considered brilliant.
You wouldn’t know that from the start of the album as the nearly 14-minute super-jam “Bixby Canyon Bridge”/”I Will Possess Your Heart” provides a harder, darker edge to anything that you’ve heard from Death Cab so far. Gibbard chants “you can’t see a dream” over swirling distortion that finally resolves into a screaming finale that closes with the whispered “No closer to any kind of truth/as I assume was the case with you.” This song provides the context for the pregnant introduction to “I Will Possess Your Heart” that puzzled/frustrated so many early listeners. You need the intro to recover from the finale and by the time that the song builds back up, you’re ready for another trip.
While the album keeps away from clichÉd melodies and easily-dissectible song structures, it lacks the focus and emotional intimacy necessary to truly connect with the listener. It’s like DCFC decided to take two or three steps backwards. When the songs start to get going, when you start to buy the story, the focus shifts (“Pity and Fear”) or completely ends (“You Can Do Better than Me”). The “Title & Registration”-esque, bass-driven ballad, “Your New Twin Sized” walks the line between the two pitfalls quite beautifully, “No Sunlight” just might make you roll the window down, and “The Ice is Getting Thinner” is heartbreaking.
Throughout the album the band seeks to develop a new layer to DCFC’s “sound” but rather than evolving to the next level of a maturing band, the instrumentation seems half-finished and always missing something.
“Grapevine Fires” is a perfect example of a song that builds throughout the entire piece, but at 2:39, when the Wallis’s guitar teases you with the possibility of a breakdown, no climax comes. “Long Division” just sounds like an updated version of old-time staple “Company Calls,” and “Cath” could have been stripped straight from The Photo Album. This is an album that has tremendous potential for a live show (just wait for the build on “Talking Bird), but very little repeat attraction over my speakers.
At its best, Gibbard’s style of musical storytelling is an honest reflection of people’s emotional struggles. At its worst it’s either a vague misguided abstraction of emotions or a reduction of those struggles to simple stereotypical lyrical cliches. Since walking a happy medium with Transatlanticism, Death Cab have swung from one extreme to the other lyrically and musically. This is the reason that, though you’re still reaching for Transatlanticism, Plans will just be a nostalgia listen in five years, kind of like your first girlfriend/breakup/funeral song. Narrow Stairs also lacks any true long-lasting appeal, it’s just a novelty flavor that may catch you just the right way, but on its own lacks the lyrical focus and musical depth to truly have any type of impact upon this band’s artistic development.
Nathan Martin is a Patrol music editor.
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