At what point does a band become something more than “just a band” to someone? At what point do they begin to directly affect someone’s day-to-day life?
Preceding the release of Narrow Stairs, Death Cab for Cutie’s hotly anticipated sixth album (and second for a major label), frontman Ben Gibbard penned an extraordinary cover story for Paste detailing his love of Jack Kerouac, his love for his band, and—more importantly—his acute awareness of how many people truly hate Death Cab for Cutie. “Our band is very polarizing,” he writes. “There are people who absolutely can’t stand us, and people who absolutely can’t live without us. I’d rather spark those kind of polar-opposite feelings than have people be indifferent.”
Gibbard’s self-consciousness is as surprising as it is refreshing. After all, Death Cab is a band that dwelled in the rock underground for years, slowly and gradually building up a following around their Built to Spill-by-way-of-Big Star indie-pop before climaxing with their extraordinary 2003 album Transatlanticism, a disc that spun off as many singles as it did shout-outs on Fox’s then-popular primetime soap The O.C.. The band toured long and hard, but as their audience swelled in size, it was inevitable that they would eventually heed the call of the major label. It didn’t take long before the band was seen inking a deal with Atlantic Records, the sounds of opening cash registers drowning out the cries of “sell out!” from the die-hard fans that were with them from the Barsuk-bred beginning. The best-kept secret in indie-pop wasn’t a secret any more, and from that point on, the members of Death Cab went from being merely “popular” to practically “ubiquitous”. Death Cab’s Atlantic debut (Plans) went platinum. Guitarist Chris Walla was soon producing hit albums for Tegan & Sara and the Decemberists. Ben Gibbard’s Postal Service side-project became the best-selling disc in Sub Pop Records’ recent history. Drummer Jason McGerr was playing for artists like Matt Nathanson and Kind of Like Spitting. Death Cab issued a DVD companion to Plans called Directions. Chris Walla released a solo album, the band was nominated for a Grammy. And on April Fool’s Day 2008—Ben Gibbard announced his new side-project, Just Jazzin’.
When it comes to Narrow Stairs, however, none of this matters.
With Plans, Death Cab had to prove that they could still move units without compromising their sound, and—despite its being dominated almost entirely by ballads—they did just that. With Narrow Stairs, however, they have completely disposed of that slick studio sheen that can only be bought with major-label dollars. In the land of Narrow Stairs, there are no easy singles, which is perhaps why the eight-minute bass-driven stalker ballad “I Will Possess Your Heart” was chosen as the official lead-off track: a song designed specifically to buck anyone’s preconceived notions of what the new album would sound like. Filled with reverberated guitar tones and the distant echoes of a childlike “dah dah dah” phrase, the song gradually builds to an unsettling climax, Gibbard repeating the phrase “You got to spend some time, love / You got spend some time with me” over and over like a personal mantra birthed out of obsession. Gibbard’s has previously written characters that were alternately sad, angry, desperate, and lovesick, but here he adds “deranged” to the list, and the dark change proves, surprisingly, to be most welcome.
This isn’t the only that’s different, however. What makes Narrow Stairs such a departure for the band is its nervy, wild atmosphere: never before have we heard Death Cab unleash wailing, cyclical guitar solos (“Bixby Canyon Bridge”) or engage in rhythm guitar speed battles (“Long Division”). There’s no precedent for the sheer amount of distortion that graces Stairs, but let’s face it, a change needed to happen. Death Cab hit their musical and lyrical stride with Transatlanticism (which is why it’s still regarded as their best album), thereby making Plans, for better or worse, little more than a continuation of Transatlanticism’s sound, focusing more prominently on the melancholy that we all knew was there to begin with. The group played songs from these discs ad nauseum during their endless stream of stadium shows, boredom setting in shortly afterwards. The band would inevitably be lusting for a new direction if not an entirely new sound; and since their lead guitarist is also their producer, the guys were allowed to be a bit more whimsical this time out. They break out the tabla during “Pity and Fear”, mess around with New Pornographers-styled power pop on “No Sunlight”, and—strangest of all—craft one helluva Phil Spector influenced girl group ballad with “You Can Do Better Than Me”. No, really.
Yet as simple, droll, exciting, or catchy as Death Cab is from song to song, the reason why they’ve reached their level of popularity is all because of Gibbard’s lyrics: poetic yet uncomplicated turns of phrase that slowly navigate the sprawling mysteries of the heart. At times Gibbard can be alternately confusing (most any song off of their debut, Something About Airplanes), surreal (Plans’ opener “Marching Bands of Manhattan”), and biting (The Photo Album‘s “Why’d You Want to Live Here?”), but the times that he knocks it out of the park (“Photobooth”, “I Will Follow You into the Dark”), the effect is nothing short of stunning. Line up those moments of pop perfection in a row and you can almost make a case for calling him the Poet Laureate of Generation Blogger.
With that in mind, though, Death Cab has yet to make a truly perfect album. In fact, Narrow Stairs’ low-point sticks out like a sore thumb: “Talking Bird” does away with metaphor all together by simply being an ode to an aging bird. It’s a dull little number that’s matched in boredom by the molasses-paced backing, a song that would have better been relegated as a B-side or iTunes pre-order giveaway (coincidentally, the low-point on Chris Walla’s otherwise-solid solo disc Field Manual was a bland ditty called “A Bird is a Song”, covering much of the same uninteresting territory). Yet Gibbard instantaneously rebounds with the stinging indictment of self-compromise called “You Can Do Better Than Me”:
I’m starting to feel we stay together
Out of fear of dying alone
I’ve been slipping through the years
And my old clothes don’t fit like they once did
So they hang like ghosts
Of the people I’ve been
It’s like my heart can’t be tamed
And I fall in love every day
And I feel like a fool
The titular heroine of the excellent “Cath…” succumbs to romantic compromise as well, ignoring happier possibilities right up to her wedding day. As Gibbard begins to question her happiness, he winds up also questioning his own: “The whispers that it won’t last roll up and down the pews / But if their hearts were dying that fast / They’d do the same as you / And I’ve done the same as you.” He grabs onto the last fleeting moments of youth in the mortality-questioning “Grapevine Fires” before using the size of a girl’s mattress as a measurement for her perceived loneliness in the quirky “Your New Twin-Sized Bed”. As always, Gibbard’s analogies are simple and collegiate, but, really, neither of those aspects prevent his songs from being direct and (ultimately) very effective.
At the start of this review, I posed a question regarding the point in which a band becomes more than just a group who makes songs you like. For some people, pop songs are simply meant to be danced to. For others, said songs have the power to lift, change, and galvanize moods, sometimes (in extreme cases) even saving people’s lives in moments of utter despair. The reason? Pop lyrics can sometimes articulate something that we ourselves cannot put into words, delivered almost instantaneously in a simple three-to-four minute burst. This articulation helps us identify parts our selves and—inevitably—overcome whatever that internal obstacle is. It’s something that Gibbard has grown to be a master of, and that’s why the Death Cab following is as devoted as it is. Yet Gibbard isn’t writing specifically to save others: after all these years, it’s obvious that he’s still trying to figure himself out.
The album’s opening lyrical image is of Gibbard standing barefooted in a stream under the Bixby Canyon Bridge, gradually realizing that the Kerouacian muse he was chasing after all these years is nowhere to be found. By the time the album closes out with “The Ice is Getting Thinner”, Gibbard is standing on an ice floe that’s slowly dissolving beneath him and his beloved, both silently awaiting an dismal inevitability that they’d rather not think about. Narrow Stairs is an album about facing disappointment head-on, whether you like it or not. Fortunately for us though, Narrow Stairs is not a disappointing album: it’s hands down the strangest, most unpredictable set the band has ever recorded. It will strike everyone in a different way, but, ultimately, it will be remembered as the step forward that everyone (including the band) has been waiting for. It may not be perfect, but it was certainly worth the wait.