Death Cab for Cutie Narrow Stairs

[Atlantic; 2008]

Styles: Seattle indie-pop as seen through a wide lens
Others: Uh, you’ve heard of these guys, right?

The saddest element of Death Cab for Cutie’s latest (and, arguably, best) record, Narrow Stairs, isn’t Ben Gibbard’s lovelorn lyricism -- instead, it’s the fact that many people will ignore it solely because it's a Death Cab for Cutie album. To be sure, the band members themselves are partially to blame; 2005’s major-label breakthrough Plans had some great songs, but ultimately the more tepid moments sounded as if they were trying for their own Automatic for the People but ended up with a sepia-hued Reveal instead.

However, the onus resides mostly on the shoulders of fans, especially those who abandoned the group when they appeared on The OC and never looked back, as if they were making some major statement in the ‘art vs. commerce’ debate. If the backstabbers in question revisited the band’s back catalog (which, by the way, has aged incredibly poorly), they’d probably realize that, aside from better production and a slight diversification of sound, the only thing that’s changed about DCFC is who’s listening to them.

All that is for another debate, however, and it’s a debate that doesn’t matter when discussing a record as structurally strong as Stairs. No record of theirs has moved more briskly and melodically, from the sonic love letter to their Seattle indie-rock upbringings, “Cath...” to the Dismemberment Plan-esque start-and-stop chorus of “Long Division.”

To be sure, credit is due to guitarist/producer Chris Walla, whose stylistic flourishes on tracks such as the multi-suite “Bixby Canyon Bridge” and much-discussed slow-burner “I Will Possess Your Heart” (which, admittedly, owes more to Wilco than it does to Can) add depth to Gibbard’s occasional emotional shallowness. In the end, though, Narrow Stairs belongs to drummer Jason McGerr, whose percolating, polyrhythmic skin-hitting flips the switches on “Pity and Fear” and “No Sunlight.”

Narrow Stairs is the sound of a band falling in love with the concept of sound; as such, Gibbard’s stately lyricism largely takes a backseat – although his voice has never sounded more different and varied. No longer is he content with singing in his whispered-falsetto voice anymore, as his voice’s sorta-sexual swagger on “I Will Possess Your Heart” and faltering doubt in “You Can Do Better Than Me” shows a range that had been previously unplumbed.

Speaking of: “You Can Do Better than Me” is the left-curve nobody expected from Gibbard and Co. An all-too-accurate homage to Brian Wilson, “Better” begins with massive timpanis, sleigh bells, and piano, as Ben quivers, “I’m starting to feel we stayed together out of fear of dying alone.” On paper, that line might sound depressingly mundane, but it’s Gibbard’s delivery that enhances his sometimes cumbersome “complete-sentence” way of lyric-writing. With a couple of verses and a few piano sweeps, the gorgeous song is out of the way in two minutes. It leaves you wanting more, but then again, Death Cab for Cutie aren’t as interested in satisfying an audience as they are with exploring new territory on Narrow Stairs. Let’s hope their sound doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

Most Read