A new, improved Death Cab sound
Death Cab For Cutie: Codes and Keys
Release Date: May 31, 2011
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
It doesn’t take long these days to realize that something is different with Death Cab For Cutie.
More than three years have passed since their last album, “Narrow Stairs.” Although generally well-reviewed, many didn’t find it to be the Death Cab For Cutie they know and love. The album had its share of dark overtones, even if some of the songs didn’t sound like it musically. Even members Chris Walla and Ben Gibbard refer to it as “a pretty bleak offering” and their “most depressing record.”
Out of necessity and a new fondness for life, Death Cab has reinvented and reinvigorated themselves on their new album “Codes and Keys,” which is available May 31.
Three years is longer than the average cycle between albums, and it just feels like it’s time for a new Death Cab album. The band has taken everything that is great and appealing about their sound and poured it into this new set of 11 songs.
A lot has contributed to frontman Ben Gibbard’s fresh outlook. He’s married, and is now the only member of the group not living in the Seattle area, residing in Los Angeles with actress/singer wife Zooey Deschanel, who is one half of the group She & Him with Portland’s M.Ward.
Gibbard also recently found sobriety, which has also affected his outlook on life and, naturally, his writing, both musically and lyrically.
Death Cab For Cutie has gone in an alternating pattern with the last four albums. With 2003’s “Transatlanticism,” it sounded like the four members were all together in a hollow room playing songs in unison. Then in 2005, when they released “Plans,” they took a more studio-oriented, finely-tuned-production approach. It wasn’t a vastly superior album, but it felt warmer. Next, with “Narrow Stairs,” they went the way of “Transatlanticism” again. It had a more raw sound, almost as though if a mistake were made it would have stayed for purposes of authenticity.
That leaves us with 2011′s “Codes and Keys.” In many ways, this release is Death Cab For Cutie’s most ambitious album. It is a perfect balance between raw sound and the finely-tuned warm sound that only studio scrutiny can provide. It is their least guitar-oriented album to date, which is interesting as the album’s lead single. “You Are A Tourist.” is completely built around an extremely catchy guitar lick. But almost nowhere else on the record is something like this present. Guitarist/producer Chris Walla (formerly of Portland) refers to the album as “very ’70s electronic. We wanted to explore how bands were using machines in the pre-computer era.”
The album opens with an unexpected jazz-sounding drum part on the song “Home Is A Fire.” From there the instruments softly layer in, and Gibbard begins to set the album’s tone lyrically with a theme of being uncomfortable with home, with things you’re used to, wanting to move on to something better.
It’s hard not to be put in mind of the song “I Will Possess Your Heart” from “Narrow Stairs” when you hear the bass guitar part on “Doors Unlocked and Open.” But this song moves much faster and isn’t nearly as drawn out.
The song “Unobstructed Views” is immensely striking. It’s the longest song on the album and the only one without drums or percussion. It doesn’t need them. It is extremely ambient and a great example of the ’70s electronic sound Walla described. It even uses a xylophone, which gives it the perfect touch of innocence.
On “Monday Morning,” Gibbard sings “I cry out, ‘Love, keep your arms around me, I am a bird in need of grounding.’” The song is a well-penned ode to his wife. Anyone familiar with the style of She & Him will find it easy to see Deschanel was at the forefront of his thoughts when he wrote the lyrics.
“St. Peter’s Cathedral” is another electronically-inclined track whose meaning I found tough to deduce. It seems contradictory to the hopeful theme of the album, because Gibbard seems to be exploring the issue of mortality and the possibility of what lies beyond this life. He comes to the conclusion that “there’s nothing past this.”
Every song on “Codes and Keys” is striking and memorable in its own way. That is something that will make it lasting, possibly even classic, and ultimately something that Death Cab For Cutie should be very proud of. It will envelope you, and before you know it, the last song will have come to a close.
And you will just want to start it all over again.
On their way to the Sasquatch Music Festival, Death Cab For Cutie will be playing in my hometown of Bend, Oregon, on May 27 at the Les Schwab Amphitheater with Bright Eyes and Jenny & Johnny.