Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Album Review: Death Cab for Cutie - Narrow Stairs

Death Cab for Cutie: Narrow Stairs
Atlantic (2008)


Halfway through “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” the first track of Death Cab for Cutie’s new album Narrow Stairs, it becomes clear that the band is embarking on new, unfamiliar terrain.

The past couple of Death Cab albums have been generally characterized by airy melodies with pop accessibility that counterweigh the personal and emotional lyrical themes, often dealing with love and loneliness. Narrow Stairs, however, is a new animal, making the music do more of the work to reflect the darker content of the lyrics, which are as dejected and wistful as ever. While guitarist/producer Chris Walla’s production of Plans left songs shrouded in a soft, fluffy haze that tightened the album together, Narrow Stairs is more bare-bones and stark, making for a more diverse and unpredictable listen.

The clarity of Ben Gibbard’s vocals basically command listeners to delve into his dramatic, if at times melodramatic, lyrical world. Combined with the album’s rigid production, the final result is word-heavy, with lyrics being a central focus to the quality and impact of the work.

As mentioned earlier, the album’s opener “Bixby Canyon Bridge” offers an exciting transition zone between the dreamy melodies of Plans and the more rough edged sound that is to come. An ambient buildup behind Gibbard’s polished singing gives way to a fuzzy guitar riff, pounding drums, and a meandering but prominent bassline. The song ends with Gibbard’s voice floating on a sea of spacey, eerie guitar shrieks. Next comes the sprawling 8 1/2 minute “I Will Possess Your Heart,” a brazen choice for the first, and currently only, single. Riding on 4 1/2 minutes of a wordless introduction of a plodding bassline, spacey and sparse guitar, an anticipating drumbeat and accenting piano, Gibbard comes to the fore with a creepy vow on the part of a stalker. However, the song’s chorus is delivered rather flatly and although the ambient instrumentals are well done, there’s a sense that the song perhaps didn’t deserve the epic treatment in its grand introduction and length.

Death Cab returns to more familiar territory on “No Sunlight,” which offers a brief but enjoyable pop tune that, despite lyrically describing the end of one’s optimism, is one of the most melodically light songs on the album. Its follow up “Cath…” sounds great, but contains heart wrenching subject matter about a new bride who has settled for an unloving husband. These part literal, part metaphorical, part symbolic narratives that are Gibbard’s strongest assets populate the album as snapshots of failed love, broken hearts, and loneliness. Amid such dreary themes, Death Cab manage to keep listeners out of the cellar with beautiful melodies and smart, relatable statements on the issue of love.

The middle part of the album is also the best, with the strikingly beautiful and bare-boned “Talking Bird,” the sad carnival march of “You Can Do Better Than Me,” and the transcendent, pure chorus of “Grapevine Fires,” all of which offer interesting new sounds from the band. However, some missteps follow, such as “Your New Twin Sized Bed.” This song, which could have easily landed on Plans, meanders with a chorus that doesn’t really go anywhere, while its lyrical nature is a bit too upfront compared to other songs here and doesn’t leave much up to the listener to interpret meaning. Following the frantic, decent “Long Division,” African beats don’t save the go-nowhere “Pity and Fear.”

The album does, however, end on a high note with “The Ice is Getting Thinner.” Although not really a time of healing from the album’s heavy content (simply reading the title will tell you that), the song is powerful with barely more than a lone, sorrowful electric guitar and Gibbard’s finest, most touching vocal performance on the album. The song describes the unstoppable deterioration of a relationship, in typical Death Cab fashion, but the song does wrap up the album’s tough message on the fragility of love and the suffering of those without love. However, listeners could take from Narrow Stairs an alternately more inspiring lesson to hold on to love and share that affection more with others.

Narrow Stairs is surely a markedly new experience for Death Cab for Cutie fans. The album is edgier, rockier, and more unforgiving than its predecessors. Listeners will still find some pop-accessible tunes, but they are shrouded in darker musical and lyrical layers that make them more conceptual and part-of-a-whole than songs on Death Cab’s prior albums. The prominent mainstay for the band’s sound here is the crystal clear, inflection-laden vocals of Gibbard which is the familiar voice guiding listeners down into a strange, murky, new territory.

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