Perhaps it was inevitable.
When Death Cab for Cutie started out as a wide-eyed indie-rock outfit on the West Coast, few would have guessed that this group of nerdy, Built to Spill-loving college kids would go on to not only sign to a major label, but soon thereafter score a chart-topping album, a gaggle of Grammy nominations, and be that rare kind of act that could still make platinum albums despite having very little in the way of radio support. Yet when listening to the Death Cab who made 1998’s Something About Airplanes and the Death Cab who made 2003’s breakthrough effort Transatlanticism, it’s obvious that the band did a lot of growing up in that short time frame, learning how to open up their sound to a larger variety of textures, all while frontman Ben Gibbard’s character studies and wordplay grew sharper with each disc. This was a band that was neither too indie nor too mainstream, one that could have their songs prominently featured on The O.C. while never having the “sell-out” accusation really stick on them, even after they signed with Atlantic Records.
Yet once major-label debut Plans came out in 2005, something strange happened. Despite being a disc that was composed almost entirely of ballads, the Cab wound up scoring their biggest single to date (“Soul Meets Body”, which was later covered by Renée Fleming, of all people), scored their first million-seller, and were rather-hilariously misconstrued as an emo rock outfit. When it came to do a follow-up, the band wanted to switch up approaches and go for a more “live in-studio” feel, complete with guitar solos and waves of amp feedback. The murky disc that followed — the chart-topping 2008 effort Narrow Stairs — was ultimately the sound of a band changing things up right when they needed to. Even with the last third of the record being a pretty difficult slog, it still showed Gibbard continuing to grow as a songwriter, and guitarist Chris Walla really come into his own as a producer, filing the disc with enough color and surprises to make it just as affecting as previous efforts. They also did some song for some movie soundtrack; apparently said film was popular.
So perhaps it was inevitable that Death Cab for Cutie would eventually hit a wall — after all, there are only so many different production tricks you can pull before everyone realizes you’re merely rehashing all of your earlier material — and with Codes & Keys, not only has the band hit that wall, but the bottom has dropped out almost completely.
Prior the disc’s release, much was made over the fact that this album was almost completely ditching guitars in favor of keyboard and pianos, which lead some to believe that this disc would sound like Walla’s own take on the Postal Service sound. Instead, Codes & Keys is just what it sounds like: Death Cab songs with pianos in place of electric guitars (for the most part). What this insignificant detail fails to cover up, however, is just how weak the songs are this time out. The disc opens with the moody “Home is a Fire”, which uses the same level of lyrical surrealism that Plans opener “Marching Band of Manhattan” did — what with floating fences and bricks making Gibbard feel nervous — but these lines are grounded in no higher metaphor, and, ultimately, nothing is achieved in this song (aside from the band proving they can make moody pieces when they want to). Whatever main thesis Gibbard is trying to achieve drifts by largely unnoticed.
From then on, things only get more confusing. On the remarkably average mid-tempo rocker “Doors Unlocked & Open”, Gibbard tries his hand at singing only in disjointed word-association phrases, passing it all off as powerful insight:
Cold as comfort
Somewhere down, down, down in the ocean
Of sound, sound we’ll live in slow motion
And be free with doors unlocked and open
Doors unlocked and opening
Although fans may certain pick over these lyrics in search of a greater, deeper message, one can’t help but feel that Gibbard is really phoning it in this time out, tossing out disconnected phrases and hoping that listeners find some meaningful way to piece them all together. Even worse is lead single “You Are a Tourist”, in which Gibbard tries out his backup job as the guy who pens generic turns of phrase for Hallmark cards (“When there’s a burning in your heart / An endless yearning in your heart / Build it bigger than the sun / Let it grow, let it grow / When there’s a burning in your heart / Don’t be alone” — what?), all over the most tired-sounding guitar line the group has yet penned (heck, they even look bored in the music video). At its worse, Codes & Keys sounds like the work of a decent Death Cab for Cutie cover band trying to write their own songs in the style of Death Cab for Cutie.
The only thing that’s worse than Gibbard’s generic turns of phrase are the times when the band flirts with some truly great moments before abruptly changing course into generic platitudes. Take the title track for example, wherein a rollicking little piano melody anchors one of the most fascinating opening lines we’ve yet heard from the band (“We won’t get far / Flying circles inside a jar / ‘cos the air we breathe / Is thinning with the words that we speak”), before discussing how “the codes and keys / protect you from the pangs of jealousy”, without elaborating on the thought. These hard, disjointed leaps of logic that Gibbard makes are extremely difficult to keep up with, and nowhere is that more apparent than on the song that was so obviously designed to be the emotional climax of the disc, “St. Peter’s Cathedral”, which, like many songs here, starts off rather beautifully, using a very simple, lightly-shifting keypad sound before invoking Gibbard’s awe of the sheer architecture of the titular building. Yet his narration shifts gradually: at first, it is the cathedral that is fearful of “the answer”, before discussing how you the listener will soon learn “if these fictions really prove how much you’ve got to lose”. Then, it shifts to Gibbard discussing how amazed he is by the building’s reaching ambition, and then he notes how when our “heart stops ticking”, there’s “nothing past it”, a firm declaration of atheism that he reiterates over and over for the duration of the song. The drums begin epically pounding behind him, the dissonant sounds in the background climb ever higher, but nothing is really gained: so there might be nothing awaiting us beyond our deaths. Gibbard seems to hold a pretty definitive say during the song, and people of other faiths may certainly agree or disagree with that statement, but — this is our big climactic revelation? Really? Because of the song’s ever-shifting sense of narration, it’s hard to find an emotional through-line, and as such, this supposedly powerful insight is muddled.
Yet when the band isn’t unleashing confounding opening lines (like when Gibbard declares that “Life is sweet / In the belly of the beast” on “Stay Young, Go Dancing”) or generic platitudes (as on the otherwise-gorgeous synth experiment “Unobstructed Views”), there are still some moments of greatness that pop through. The delightfully disposable “Portable Television” is a fun little number about huddling around a broken TV with loved ones for comfort — all set to a rolling little piano lick — and the chorus to “Underneath the Sycamore” is one of the fattest and most ear-catching that the band has yet penned (which can be chalked up to the work of bassist Nick Harmer, whose dynamic, brilliant playing on this album winds up nearly stealing the show half the time, proving himself as Death Cab’s secret weapon). Best of all, however, is the slight, focused little slice of electronica that is “Monday Morning”, which uses an emotional cut-up sound sample to back up some classic Gibbard songwriting: using metaphors that aren’t too obscure (“I cry out ‘Love, keep your arms around me! / I am a bird that’s in need of grounding / I’m built to fly away / I never learned how to stay'”) to tell a story about his relationship with an imaginative girl who doesn’t much like modern music. It’s a sweet, gorgeous little moment tucked away onto the album’s latter half that easily ranks with some of their best upbeat numbers.
When you add all of these things up, however, it soon becomes obvious that as great a detour as Narrow Stairs was, it was just that: a detour. The band’s basic sound is still the same, and as daring as they want to bill Codes & Keys as — even with a few standout moments stuck inside — this is the sound of Death Cab at their most generic, disjointed, and disinterested. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but the truth is this: Codes & Keys is the worst album of their career. Fret not, loyal fans: they’ve emerged from heinous lows before (remember The Stability EP?), but even with that said, you deserve much better than this.