Death Cab for Cutie
Photo: Eliot Lee Hazel / Courtesy of Atlantic Records

Unlocking Death Cab for Cutie’s ‘Codes and Keys’ 10 Years On

A full decade later, Death Cab for Cutie’s Codes and Keys is far from the disappointment fans initially perceived.

Codes and Keys
Death Cab for Cutie
Atlantic / Barsuk
31 May 2011

It’s vain to read too much into songs that came out a decade before the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically altered our lives; yet, I cannot help but fixate on a lyric from Death Cab for Cutie’s “Home Is a Fire” (from 2011’s Codes and Keys): “Home is a fire / A burning reminder / Of where we belong / With walls, built up around us / The bricks make me nervous / They’re only so strong”. Or, maybe, “You’re on the floor / Fearful of what’s outside your door”—from the album’s title track—haunts in a way that such jovial piano work would otherwise not allow.

Early in the first wave of pandemic lockdowns, Death Cab for Cutie’s good guy frontman, Ben Gibbard, was an early adopter of the Livestream concert that so many more musicians experimented with over the last year or so. His setup was humble: a camera in his home studio that captured him juggling between charming anecdotes, playing songs on an acoustic guitar or piano, riffing on jokes in the chat, and so on. It was moving to hear “I Will Follow You into the Dark” on my second wedding anniversary, which my wife and I obviously spent at home instead of at some luxurious dinner together. What was most memorable about those Gibbard live streams—and any Death Cab for Cutie show I’d seen since 2011—though, were tunes from the “worst” Death Cab for Cutie LP: Codes and Keys.

Practically a quarter-century into their career, the band has essentially become a legacy act, a rock-solid live band that should enjoy second or third billing on any music festival lineup. They’d easily sell out the biggest theater venue in your city or town, and they deserve their status as alternative rock elder statesmen because Gibbard is, at best, earnest (and at worst, cornier than the most cringe-inducing dad jokes). Either way, he’s one of the finest songwriters of his generation.

Producer/guitarist Chris Walla, whose ride in Death Cab came to its end after recording Kintsugi in 2014, had a magician’s focus in bringing unexpected soundscapes to Gibbard’s emotive lyrics and tender melodies. As for bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr, they still round out the quintet as the formidable secret-weapon rhythm section. Playing live, these guys’ utility in Death Cab for Cutie is so blatantly clear; they also look like sitcom dads, but I haven’t yet figured out what to make of that fact. Closing the current line-up are guitarist Dave Depper and keyboardist Zac Rae (who do not look like sitcom dads).

This iteration of the group’s first fully collaborative release, Thank You For Today, is now two years old. A retrospective on a deeply average album isn’t really interesting, though; like its vapid cover art, the collection feels lazy, and like some of Ben Gibbard’s best lyrics, it just feels mean. As uninteresting as those songs may play at home, Death Cab for Cutie’s live prowess cannot be overstated. Similarly, reflecting on five-plus years of the slightly less average Kintsugi stirs a similar ennui. It’s not comprised of bad songs or great songs (although they’re all incredible on stage). However, seeing artists perform their music hasn’t been possible lately, so we’re stuck instead with the studio albums.

Ten years ago this month, Codes and Keys (the seventh Death Cab for Cutie studio record) arrived to a tepid reaction. In my case, my vinyl preorder arrived on a day before the release date, and my buddy Neil came over to my college apartment to drink beer, play video games, and listen to the record. We’d loved the sensational music video for the lead single, “You Are a Tourist”, and hoped that song was a good indication of how the other ten tracks would fare. Similarly, Gibbard had performed a solo rendition of “Codes and Keys” for NPR on just a piano and the track, despite its jaunty rhythm, had a haunting quality that teased the best of their earlier work.

We were excited—and then quickly disappointed.

There’s a joke amongst Death Cab for Cutie fans that Gibbard is a sad dude who writes sad dude music about sad dude shit for sad people to be sad about. I don’t think that’s particularly fair, nor particularly true. It isn’t up to fans (or critics) to tell an artist how to come about their craft, and in the rollout of Codes and Keys, there was much ugliness made out of the indie rock royalty forged in the union of Zoey Deschanel and Ben Gibbard. Their marriage was for swoop bangs what Jay Z & Kanye West’s Ni**as in Paris (released in September 2011) was for tourism in France. The question of how Ben Gibbard, the dude who wrote the line “She is beautiful / but she don’t mean a thing to me”, could dare to be happy somehow seemed like an acceptable take in light of Codes and Keys‘ lighter tones.

This is all to say that I think it is wrong, unfair, and cruel to say that Codes and Keys is a bad album because Ben Gibbard was happy when he wrote it. It’s a direct reversal of the themes on the grisly and dark Narrow Stairs (2008), an album that begins with its singer disappointed that he found profound sadness while chasing his demons in the form of Jack Kerouac to the site where Kerouac ostensibly drank himself to death (instead of some profound sense of meaning). On the lighter side, Codes and Keys‘ closer, “Stay Young, Go Dancing”, is an honest-to-god song that begins with Gibbard singing, “Life is sweet”.

I can’t defend my actions at 21-years-old, and I wouldn’t defend things people said on Twitter about Gibbard (or about Deschanel being Death Cab’s Yoko); that said, “Stay Young, Go Dancing” is, in its melodramatic, over the top joyousness, still deserving of some light ribbing. Gibbard croons, “’Cause when she sings / I hear a symphony / And I’m swallowed in sound / As it echoes around me”. Usually more subtle, Walla incorporates an orchestral swell of stringed instruments, too. It was just too much heart, too much warmth, and not enough wrath. (“The Ice Is Getting Thinner” is the album ender for Narrow Stairs, for goodness sakes. We want glum!)

Or, so I thought ten years ago, when spring blossomed over the Midwest. Now married as Gibbard was (albeit briefly, as he and Deschanel split five months after the album came out), I find even the stickiest sweetness of Codes and Keys final passage as a warm, tender moment rather than a groan-inducing toothache. Life, after all, can be sweet, and if there’s one thing these pieces show us today, it’s that if and when you find the joy, you should be entirely unselfconscious about clinging to it.

Again, it’s a punk move to read into an album that came out a decade ago, but as we start to let ourselves back into the world, the soft edge of Codes and Keys sounds like a hug from an old friend. It seems like the sun pouring in through open window blinds, so much so that the main character in “Monday Morning” “loves the natural light” and has her sunny epiphany to Gibbard’s warbling over McGerr’s drum-machine-like precision and Walla’s spaced-out keys heeds: “And when you’re looking in the mirror / What you see is gonna astound you / And while the glow of youth in time eludes / It’s burning on inside you”. I’m more and more convinced that—despite Gibbard’s own admission that Codes and Keys is the worst of his works—he was just playing the long game with this one. The album is the glow of youth, and it’s been burning on.

Musically, Codes and Keys sounds like a greatest hits amalgamation of the best things Death Cab for Cutie could do, at least up to their seventh album. Both the snarky “Some Boys” and the driving “You Are a Tourist” echo the big basslines Harmer plays on Narrow Stairs, whereas “Underneath the Sycamore” is indistinguishable from the mega hits on Plans and should stand among other classic Death Cab pop hits like “Crooked Teeth” or “Soul Meets Body” (even if it coaxes a more interesting vocal performance out of Gibbard twisting around his lyrics). The forceful and steady “Unobstructed Views” similarly builds on a piano line like “Transatlanticism”, adding a zoomy synth line to the big crescendo.

What you can’t hear on their seventh outing are echoes of their first three albums. All of the lo-fi production is edited out in (or after) the studio’s touches. The emo-adjacent lyrics of Something About Airplanes, the rawness of We Have the Facts, and the tentative steps into pop music The Photo Album experiments with are all mostly absent here. In contrast, Codes and Keys is unabashedly the perfect evolution of the band’s second arc. In this sense, it’s a failed experiment because it doesn’t deviate far enough from Narrow Stairs, which itself was a huge departure from Transatlanticism or Plans. Instead, Codes and Keys takes Death Cab’s new bag of tricks and runs them back better.

The nice thing about looking at a mid-career album in retrospect is we get to reassess Codes and Keys based on what comes after it. In Death Cab’s case, that’s a good thing. Compared to the sonically dense, semi-experimental Kintsugi, or the safe and boring Thank You For Today, Codes and Keys is like a time capsule for an earlier version of the band. It’s Death Cab for Cutie 3.0. and—all respect to Death Cab for Cutie 4.0—they’re as essential a live act as any other iteration of Gibbard, Harmer, and McGerr, but their later studio output never reached the heights that I never realized Codes and Keys had.

For example, I would argue that the title track is a top ten Death Cab for Cutie tune, and I wish Gibbard played it more. It makes good on his promise to make a less guitar-heavy record, favoring piano as a writing tool. While it adds some unneeded complexity to the simple song structure, “Portable Television” provides yet another showcase of Gibbard’s mastery on the keys.

It’s really too bad Death Cab for Cutie doesn’t like Codes and Keys. In an interview with VICE during the rollout for the Thank You For Today, Gibbard calls Codes and Keys his least favorite record he’d made, in part because he became closed off from people and more reserved after moving to Los Angeles. Before my previous misguided hate of the album coagulates into guilt, Gibbard adds that fans’ reactions didn’t necessarily impact his response. He continues:

I’m our band’s biggest fan. We play all these songs live, and the songs that the fans love are usually the songs I love. A lot of that’s reflected in the new album. Like, ‘I want to get back to reminding people why they love the band’. Over the course of our albums, we’ve strayed too far from an M.O. that I’ve tried to maintain and sometimes lost: Always know what you’re good at, but also try to step outside what you’re good at and try something new with every record.

For the life of me, I can’t hear what Gibbard does in Thank You For Today, but maybe in 2029, I’ll find something in it I couldn’t know. That’s the thing about essential legacy acts who keep releasing unessential new music to take up valuable real estate in their setlists: each new stinker adds a tint of rose on the lenses through which we might evaluate their work.

Ten years ago, I was convinced that Codes and Keys was the worst thing Death Cab had ever made; now, I don’t even think it has their third-worst album art. We might not be able to stay young and go dancing, but if we can hang out at the shows long enough to hear the newer songs grow into older songs, those might end up sounding as sweet as the songs we’d come to love before. It’s the opposite of what Gibbard warns listeners of in “You Are a Tourist”: “If you feel just like a tourist in the city you were born / then it’s time to go”. But, if you fight through that feeling—or even if you just wait it out—you might end up feeling at home, after all.