Death Cab for Cutie
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The Optimist Died Inside of Me: Death Cab for Cutie’s ‘Narrow Stairs’

Fifteen years ago, Death Cab for Cutie’s Narrow Stairs tackled the malaise of early 30s careers and marriages, and what happens when those don’t pan out.

Narrow Stairs
Death Cab for Cutie
Atlantic / Barsuk
12 May 2008

Even if not by design, Ben Gibbard has soundtracked the lives of people of a certain age over the past 25 years. For fans now reckoning with middle age and taking solace in the earned wisdom that colors much of last year’s Asphalt Meadows, Death Cab for Cutie‘s other records have provided a soundtrack for falling in and out of love, saying goodbye to loved ones, and picking up the pieces. Thematically, Narrow Stairs (2008) tackles the malaise of early 30s careers and marriages, specifically, what happens when those don’t pan out.

The basement shows and short-lived romances chronicled on Something About Airplanes and We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes gave way to a reckoning with the past on The Photo Album. Death Cab for Cutie’s classic Transatlanticism, which turns 20 this year, focuses on trying to become unstuck from unproductive romantic entanglements without letting oneself off the hook for bad behavior. It contains some of the band’s most well-regarded songs, including the epic title track, “The New Year”, and “The Sound of Settling”.

After being repeatedly name-checked and eventually performing on The O.C., Death Cab for Cutie filled larger venues. They signed to Atlantic Records and released their major label debut, Plans, in 2005. It was the type of success hoped for when those contracts were signed. Plans debuted at number four on the Billboard chart and featured three singles that charted, including “I Will Follow You into the Dark”, which has become their signature song, and they were nominated for a Grammy for Best Pop Performance. On Plans, Gibbard continues the journey through adulthood as romances turn into relationships and loved ones are lost. The wrenching “What Sarah Said” sums up the shadow cast upon even the joy of long-lasting love: “Love is watching someone die.” By the closer “Stable Song”, the narrator accepts that “The gift of memory’s an awful curse / With age, it just gets much worse.”

In 2008, Death Cab for Cutie returned with Narrow Stairs, which reached number one on the Billboard chart, which is quite a feat for such a dark record. In pre-release interviews, guitarist/producer Chris Walla told Billboard, “It’s totally a curve ball…I think it’s going to be a polarizing record… it’s really got some teeth.” He mentioned Can, sludge metal, and Brainiac as key influences. To announce this left turn, the first single from Narrow Stairs, “I Will Possess Your Heart”, is an eight-and-a-half minute song whose lyrics read like a note from a stalker but went on to be nominated for a Grammy.   

Where Transatlanticism suggested possibilities and Plans presented forward motion, Narrow Stairs offers shrinking options. Lyrically, it reads like a collection of short stories of disaffection and reality checks. The record’s characters get married out of fear, buy twin-size beds out of resignation, envy the person leaving in the morning after a night’s indiscretion, find an uneasy peace watching a wildfire from a cemetery, and exit relationships before they can be left. Gibbard expressed that the songs on Narrow Stairs are so dark that he does not want to return to that headspace again.

The bloom of love is off the rose in Narrow Stairs. Possibility has been replaced by disappointment and resignation, and the music matches this melancholy. Transatlanticism’s “The Sound of Settling” romanticized going gray with a propulsive pop sound and “bah-bahs” and “I Will Follow You into the Dark” imagined an everlasting love without an afterlife. Still, even the most upbeat-sounding song on Narrow Stairs is called “You Can Do Better than Me”

The opener, “Bixby Canyon Bridge”, references a spot made famous by Jack Kerouac, but its expansive, epic sound is in service of a narrator who has come to the titular spot looking for answers about someone whose “soul had died”, but not finding any. It could occur weeks or months after “Stable Song”, but one thing is clear–Narrow Stairs will not be about happy endings. 

Gibbard’s best writing is filled with details that bring even the quietly devastating moments to life. However, he is also capable of penning a big heartrending moment in an anthem, too, with the most memorable lines of “Bixby” being “And I want to know my fate / If I keep up this way / It’s hard to want to stay awake / When everyone you meet / They all seem to be asleep / And you wonder if you’re missing your dream.” This is delivered with one of the few Big Rock Moments on the record, complete with a goosebump-inducing solo.

The less said about “I Will Possess Your Heart”, the better. It was released in a shortened version that enjoyed some radio success and still prompts an enthusiastic response from audiences at shows. Still, it is such an outlier musically and lyrically that it prompts more of a head scratch than an appreciation for the stretch. The songs that hew closer to the Death Cab for Cutie playbook on Narrow Stairs are far more successful. “No Sunlight” has a catchy hook, but the lyrics explore a loss of hope and lightness, which keys up the main character’s actions in the next song.

“Cath…” is not only one of the best songs on the record but one of the finest in Death Cab for Cutie’s catalog. It shows off everything that has made Gibbard such a compelling lyricist for the past 25 years, a story song about a woman settling, getting married in a hand-me-down wedding dress while guests whisper that it won’t last. The groom is described as well-intentioned, not over the moon or even devoted. The smile for the photographer is held “as someone would hold a crying child”. But instead of inspiring pity, the song’s final lines deliver a gut punch and trigger an empathic lump in the throat: “If their hearts were dying that fast / They’d have done the same as you / And I’d have done the same as you.” 

Next, coupled life is further explored in a pair of songs. “Talking Bird” takes the rather obvious caged bird imagery and spins it into something sweet or sinister, promising a love that won’t end as long as the bird never leaves the cage. “You Can Do Better Than Me” shows some signs of pep via an arrangement that suggests the darker B-side of “God Only Knows” with lyrics to match. The first lines announce that the couple has stayed together out of fear rather than love and ends with the narrator declaring that the partner can do better, but he cannot. These two tracks’ sequencing suggests a paired reading in which neither party is happy but afraid to find out if a better life is out there. 

“Your New Twin Size Bed” suggests it isn’t. The narrator’s friend has tossed a queen-size bed in the alley after years of expecting to fill the other side with a partner. From the first line, “You look so defeated lying there in your new twin size bed,” the discomfort is palpable, but there’s some dark humor in the details, with the sign on the discarded bedding that reads, “I hope you have more luck with this than me.” The other side of the mattress remained unused and became a reminder of loneliness, where it once suggested hope. The narrator is unnerved by the feelings it stirs: “I try not to worry / But you’ve got me terrified / It’s like you’re in some kind of hurry / To say goodbye.” It seems too early to be giving up, but sometimes it’s easier to let things go and move forward. 

Fear of rejection drives the narrators of “Long Division” and “Pity and Fear”. One of them is “Always distracted by the very mention of an open door” and determined not to be what’s left at the end, and the other is envious of the night’s company, who escapes the room in the middle of the night. These two songs seem to be hinting at the damage previous relationships have done, but the responses are quite different. 

Another highlight, “Grapevine Fires”, describes an apocalyptic scene of fire spreading from the perspective of an oddly contented narrator. He and his partner go pick up her daughter after school, and they buy a bottle of wine and sip from paper cups in a cemetery while they watch the fire rage, a reminder that “it’s only a matter of time before we all burn”. The narrator finds comfort in the company, watching the daughter dance, thinking he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else as the world burns. Aside from that twin-size bed owner, it’s as close to peace or happiness as anyone gets in Narrow Stairs

The closer “The Ice Is Getting Thinner” uses a spring thaw to describe the fracturing of a fragile relationship. Where other Death Cab for Cutie records with some peace or clarity, this one ends with thinning ice and two people who can’t keep going together. While Narrow Stairs didn’t repeat the success level-up from Plans, it did well enough to keep the label happy, selling just under a half million copies and racking up a couple more Grammy nominations. 

Death Cab for Cutie experienced some turbulence after Narrow Stairs. The follow-up, Codes and Keys, set aside guitars in favor of keyboards as the band brought in Alan Moulder to mix, the first time a Death Cab record wasn’t mixed by Chris Walla. Thematically, Gibbard was in a happier place, not as interested in writing melancholic songs. He had married Zooey Deschanel. Their subsequent split informed the follow-up Kintsugi, the first record made without Walla involved. 

Thank You for Today continued with a more radio-friendly sound that paid off with radio hits, including “Black Sun” and “Gold Rush”, and a handful of songs from the 2010s recapture what made Death Cab for Cutie so compelling. Overall this is a transition period for Death Cab for Cutie. Still, songs like “Northern Lights”, “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive”, and “Little Wanderer” expanded their sound into New Order-adjacent pop and retained Gibbard’s uncanny lyrical prowess. 

In 2022, Death Cab for Cutie returned with their best record since Narrow Stairs. Asphalt Meadows recaptured what made the band so compelling and found Gibbard tackling the mixed feelings of middle age in songs like “I Don’t Know How I Survive”, “Roman Candles”, and “Here to Forever”. By focusing on taking stock of what’s been lost and what’s left to experience, they have a reinvigorated purpose, reflected in the closer, “I’ll Never Give Up on You”. There’s less anxiety and less resignation; contentment has replaced it.

In retrospect, Narrow Stairs winds up highlighting a band at a crossroads. In hindsight, it becomes clear that Death Cab for Cutie needed to evolve, but that experimentation produced growing pains that took some time to work through. With Gibbard remarried and embracing clean living, and the re-energized sound of Asphalt Meadows, it is once again exciting to see what he will share with the longtime fans who have been charting their own life journeys through his songs.