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Death Cab For Cutie – Narrow Stairs

July 7, 2008

Death Cab’s first album in three years, Narrow Stairs, starts off with a song somewhat different from anything else by the band that I have ever heard. Bixby Canyon Bridge is still a foray into pop melancholy, but it’s lyrics approach the tragedy somewhat more roundabout by talking less about feelings and telling a story instead, and the memorable hook takes until over halfway through the song to uncover itself. This sounds like the start of a hit album, and no doubt this album will end up being Death Cab’s most popular album, even more popular than Transatlanticism, or at least it will be the one that people will listen to most while the purists swear by Transatlanticism. I don’t know which album I prefer more. I guess I haven’t gotten to know Transatlanticism that well.

I have gotten to know Narrow Stairs extremely well, though, which is odd, because it is a fairly new album, but it seems like whenever I am in a car with someone, there is a fifty percent chance that either Goodbye Blues by The Hush Sound or Narrow Stairs by Death Cab For Cutie will be playing on their CD player. I’ve only actually sat down and listened to both albums once. I don’t need to listen to them any more, because I already know them front to back. And I don’t really want to listen to them anymore, because I am sick of them. I’m sure time will heal them as it heals all albums that have been played too much for an individual listener, but for now the opportunity is ripe to look at Narrow Stairs objectively.

Completely objectively, it is a hit album. It’s sold extremely well and it’s going to keep on selling, and the reason for it is simple. Ben Gibbard writes extremely good vocal melodies, and he has now come at ease to pairing them with building, big sounding guitar rock to make the music reach a wider audience. Whether or not you actually like his vocals is a completely different story. It’s not a matter of loving them or hating them. Personally, I think they’re acceptable. His voice is smooth enough to do the songs and lyrics justice, but they have built a deserving reputation. Ben Gibbard writes whiny, sad music and sings with a whiny, sad voice.

Or does he? On Narrow Stairs, some things about Death Cab have changed, and other things have stayed the same. Gibbard still writes about depressing life, which is fine, because that’s what his audience likes. Sometimes his lyrics are touching poetry, particularly the only obliquely sad You Can Do Better Than Me, and at other times they are downright embarassing, such as on Long Division (The television snows softly. Oh that’s poetic static, Ben.)

Another embarassing moment is one of the longer hit singles in American pop, I Will Possess Your Heart. On it’s exterior, the song is an epic jazzy trance tune, and that works out fine for it until Ben Gibbard comes in and ruins the show with one of his most contrived vocal melodies and trite lyrics ever. This is what happens when Gibbard tries to pretend he has balls. In two words, it’s jock indie, lyrics about a date rapist over what we would like to pretend is a massive sonic exploration but really isn’t anything you haven’t heard before.

But it has gotten radio play. Lot’s of it. I’m sure that by the end of the albums radio lifetime, at least five of its eleven songs will have been singles. People are going to eat them all up. And once again, that is because Gibbard knows how to write hooks, be they good or secretly bad and unimaginative. It might sound like I am bashing the band here, because I am, but there are several songs here that are musically extremely well written. No Sunlight is going to end up a singalong Death Cab classic for a good reason. I also enjoy the melodies on Your New Twin Sized Bed a lot, and the use of the Indian percussion instrument tabla on Pity and Fear is quite creative and yields great results. You Can Do Better Than Me is a love song at heart, and as a friend has pointed out to me it almost sounds like some kind of orchestral arrangement by Nobuo Uematsu.

The album ends in the same way it starts, with yet another story about geology. But what that last song, The Ice Is Getting Thinner, reveals is that it is not a so different than how the album started, and how the album started in not so different a way than most Death Cab songs. Yes, musically this album takes some chances and succeeds slightly more often than it fails, which means it has something going for it. But this is counting out the lyrics, and counting out the lyrics is wrong. Lyrically, Death Cab For Cutie have been writing the music the same for ten years. When I listen to Death Cab, I get depressed, and I don’t like getting depressed. But beyond that practical issue, when a band does the same thing for ten years with little variation, they get boring. Death Cab For Cutie are on thin ice, or perhaps going down a narrow stairwell that’s only getting more narrow.

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