Death Cab for Cutie
Since the whole O.C. debacle a few years back, Death Cab for Cutie have become synonymous with the most recent wave of indie-rock-gone-mainstream, often appearing along with the Arcade Fire and the Shins as one of the few halfway decent bands cited as favorites by millions of people with otherwise shitty taste. It’s not the band’s fault, obviously. They’ve stuck to their guns over the years, giving no musical indication that they were in active pursuit of mainstream approval (which, for whatever reason, despite newly lax outlooks on selling out in terms of licensing, is still a no-no in some circles), releasing a series of records that don’t really differ from one another very much. They’ve spent a decade honing their sound, and one could make the argument that they’ve perfected it to such a degree that it’s worked to their detriment. What was once seen as hard-won individuality started to seem dangerously formulaic — a problem they purportedly addressed on Narrow Stairs, a record that’s been hailed as experimental and daring. This, of course, is all relative.
The record starts out with ‘Bixby Canyon Bridge’, in which Ben Gibbard reflects on his trip to Big Sur in search of the kind of life-changing experience Jack Kerouac had there decades ago, waiting for the sadly romantic realization that he was done with the part of his life that would keep him out on the road, living the life of a younger man even after so many of his friends had already moved on. And when that never quite happens, when he realizes he’s not quite done yet, it sets the tone for the rest of the record: There’s a marked desire to change and grow, but some confusion about how, exactly.
The record’s uncharacteristically lengthy first single, ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’, is among the band’s most substantial accomplishments. It starts with a four-minute-plus intro consisting of a creepy, hypnotic bass line, unchanging drums and a repetitive keyboard progression along with some droning guitar noise, before Gibbard chimes in with a story about a harmless crush turned creepy by a narrator who insists, repeatedly, “You’ve got to spend some time with me/And I know that you’ll find love/I will possess your heart.” Conceptually, it works well, with the music echoing the sentiment of the lyrics — this constant hammering away on the same idea in hopes that it will eventually stick.
‘You Can Do Better Than Me’ is a short, self-loathing examination of a relationship one person’s getting more out of than the other — standard subject matter for Gibbard, really, but with a focus on that same idea that other people are passing him by while he continues doing what he’s done forever, this time set to a musical backdrop that sounds like a late-period Beach Boys song. ‘Your New Twin Sized Bed’ marks a decidedly more front-porch, summery approach, all acoustic guitars and faux-sexy grooves, an experiment that doesn’t work nearly as well as some others.
There are moments on the record that will cause longtime listeners to do a double take, but there’s also no shortage of the kind of stuff you’ve come to expect. With its snappy melody and big chorus, ‘No Sunlight’ would have been the most obvious choice for a single, were the band not at least somewhat concerned with casting themselves in a different light. ‘Cath’ is driven by deep, plodding drums and a melody Gibbard may well have written a dozen times in the past.
It bodes well for them that these are the songs that seem eminently skippable on Narrow Stairs. And it bodes well for them that they’re content to test the water in hopes of figuring out what they’re supposed to do next, rather than just jumping in over their heads. Their respect for what they’ve built over the past decade is contagious, frankly, and it makes it far easier to forgive the occasional misstep.