Three years ago Death Cab For Cutie released Narrow Stairs, what some would consider to be an underwhelming follow up to their phenomenal album Plans. The problem with Narrow Stairs was simply it was full of self-loathing, it wasn’t an awful album by any standards but it didn’t catch on like the previous two albums. With singles spinning on alternative rock stations “I Will Possess Your Heart”, “Grapevine Fires” and “Cath…” fans were hurting for new music. And that is where we get Codes and Keys. Upon entering the album we get this sense of fear, because Ben Gibbard and the rest of the group have claimed this is a more mature album. They grew up, Gibbard married actress and She and Him frontwoman Zooey Deschanel. The first single “You Are A Tourist” was tough to swallow at first but after a few dozen listens it was love. The following singles “Home is a Fire” as well as “Underneath the Sycamore” were tougher to warm up to. The one that was in between those? “Some Boys” was just odd but eventually a nice track. So does the new guitar-less sound more stringy, Brian Eno themed album work for this band or is it a one and done go back to the mopey waters of whatever they were doing before type?
- “Home Is a Fire”
- “Codes and Keys”
- “Some Boys”
- “Doors Unlocked and Open”
- “You Are a Tourist”
- “Unobstructed Views”
- “Monday Morning”
- “Portable Television”
- “Underneath the Sycamore”
- “St. Peter’s Cathedral”
- “Stay Young, Go Dancing
Since it’s been a while between albums there is obviously going to be a sound change and we get that on the first track “Home is a Fire.” We have this sound developing through the track that reminds me especially of the Postal Service. The drum beats mixed in with the strings. As the band has previously stated this isn’t a guitar album. Gibbards vocals seem muted, as if he’s singing through paper through the mic. It took several listens to this song to get the right vibe for it. The song reminds me of at the chorus of something definitely from the Postal Service but then tears formed because this might be the closest we get to a new album from them.
The title track has a booming drum and piano combo that really kick and jump start the song. This song does have more of the classical DCFC sound than the first track (which isn’t that hard). Granted it does have a pop sound to it with the drum beat and the strings that we hear in the background. As usual Gibbard crafts lyrics that may not sound as deep as they are but trust me, they have a solid base. The catchiest part of this track just might be the combination of the drums and piano with that occasional string pattern we hear in the back. As we can see the band is experimenting with different sounds, this has a more pop sounding vibe than the previous tracks electronic one. I like it though not to say it’s a bad song.
One of the singles that they put out is the third track called “Some Boys.” This song has the infections chorus that can get stuck in your head and when Gibbard crafts a chorus that is catchy enough to stay in your head then there is something tragic about it. Not that it’s bad, don’t get me wrong on that part, it’s just not like with Katy Perry where it’s 3 words repeated but a whole sentence. The drums so far on this album seem to be mostly the prominent sound as the first three tracks have a constant loud beat, that could just be me having the bass up loud. There is a lacking of a guitar in this track as well as on the others which strikes me as a bit off and odd. The lyrics aren’t deep like some of the other ones, it seems like it was simply written by the band but as someone who once wrote lyrics can attest it’s pretty hard to write lyrics to a beat and instrumentals already. I do like this song, it might be one of those summer time tracks but hey who can predict the future.
“Doors Unlocked and Open” has the driving drum beat with the steady guitar riff that opens up the song. If you don’t pay close enough attention you just might miss the guitar chords in the lengthy introduction to the song. This song seems similar to “I Will Possess Your Heart” with the repetitive opening and the creepy sounding vocals, this might be a lyrical thing, I really like how this song develops from the opening to the end of the track. While the track doesn’t have that catchy infectious feel of some of the other tracks I feel that is something that makes a DCFC song great. The song does help give feeling that you can see more so hear how the band has evolved from the late 1990’s to today. This might be one of the best songs on the album overall on an early listen. Loving it.
“You Are A Tourist” was the lead single off of the album. It has that echo in the beginning with Gibbard’s vocals and that catchy sound to it all around. It was a tough sell at the first listen when the single dropped due to the huge difference from this song to almost everything off of Narrow Stairs. By the time the album dropped the strange sounding guitar riff mixed with the style of the song became something that I had fallen in love with. This is a typical single from the band, from the start of the actual song (after Gibbard’s voice echoes about the fire). The whole song I found getting stuck in my head all day long.
“Unobstructed Views” is actually the longest track on the album. It takes some time in getting started. Now I have never heard a Brian Eno track before so I’m not exactly sure what it would sound like but they say he was a heavy influence on the actual album and maybe this might be what it sounds like. This song, in the intro, is heavy on the piano, and typically piano heavy songs for the band are great, they tend to be at least. This one through almost the first two minutes is just repeating the same few chords, okay I hope this has a big lyrical depth to it. The background pattern changes and it starts to seemingly pick up as we approach the third minute of this prior to any vocals at all. The vocals kick in eventually and it seems that Gibbard hits it on the spot as well. The only thing that doesn’t feel like a typical DCFC album in this one is simply the instrumentations on most of the tracks. I’m not totally into this song yet, it does have that 1980’s feel to it that might take a bit of time to fully fall in love with like some tracks on Narrow Stairs.
So we are six tracks into the album so far and I’m really getting into it, well maybe. The last track wasn’t as great as I thought it would be well different I guess is the word. This review might be dragging on as well as it’s already pretty lengthy for a review. We move onwards to a track called “Monday Morning” and the way it sounds near the beginning sounds like a more poppy sounding track that you might find on Transatlanticism. Just from the first few moments of this song I fell in love. I love the lyrics and the drum beat that we get in this one. Maybe that could be why I really am getting into this song. It’s one of those songs that you can find yourself bobbing your head along with and that’s a good sign.
The album is moving head first towards the end, and so far track seven is a great start to close off the album. “Portable Television” is a nice short little ditty that seems to be almost entirely piano and drum driven with Gibbard’s voice ranging all the way up. I really like this nice one two combo of tracks seven and eight. I hope they play both of these live. This is another one of those tracks that give you hope that it might still have the capacity to make songs that sound like their older stuff. Much like the last song you can find yourself slightly dancing along to it. It’s very poppy and there is nothing really wrong with that if I think about it some more.
“Underneath the Sycamore” is the next track and I might be slightly turned off to this song. As someone pointed out it has that sound that you might find on a Killers album. I heard this before I even listened to I may or may not be biased on it. And you know right at the beginning the sound is like something off of a Killers album, even Gibbard’s vocals. This might be a bit scary except for the fact that we are already a verse into it and it’s not just repeating it. The chorus is a catchy one too, not that that is a bad thing. It’s a drum heavy tune with what feels like synthesizers but I could be wrong seeing as I know very little about music in general and I only know what sounds good. As the song reaches it’s close I was won over but not by a large amount. The song, even if it sounds like a Killers song in the non-vocal sense it still has a sound of an actual DCFC song.
“St. Peter’s Cathedral” starts the slow descent into the finale that is the album. The way it starts off with the “drum” or whatever percussion it is following with Gibbard’s haunting vocals was almost an instant love for this song. Like I have been saying all along it’s been tough pinpointing one song that really stands out, while I love this song already after just a brief taste I can surely say that this album will close out nicely. Oh wait there is still one more song. Crap. Anyways back to the thoughts on this song, much like some of the other songs on this album it feels like a cross between the Postal Service but not really driving that feeling as much as “Home is a Fire.” This track feels more like it was left off of Narrow Stairs more than the other albums that they have. “Stay Young, Go Dancing” is a great finale and a great follow up to “St. Peter’s.”
My final thoughts. Great album, almost every song has it’s own soul to it, none of them sound too much alike but they all don’t sound distinct at the same time, like most DCFC albums. When the band said that they had changed up the sound quite a bit the first thought was oh shit we are totally screwed. The sound of each single was a bit creepy and made me wonder what the whole album will sound like and needless to say I am pleased, quite pleasantly, enough to hand this album a nice little 9.5/10.