Origin: Bellingham, Washington
For this particular album, both JB and DJ offer their opinions. Take from them what you will.
For those new to Death Cab, the prevailing energy on their previous albums has been one of 80% hopelessness, 20% hope. Lead singer Ben Gibbard pretty much set the mold for 21st Century indie heartbreak songwriting. Each song felt like the sentimental movie that plays in the head of a recent dumpee; but always with the hint that love wasn't dead, it had just taken a break for the time being. It was this child-like teaspoon of optimism that kept Death Cab relatable and heart-wrenching because at the end of the day we've all been there. However, with their 2008 effort, Narrow Stairs, Gibbard found himself in a very dark place. He recently came clean about his struggles during the writing and recording of the album; he was wrestling with alcoholism and felt totally defeated. The album lacked the taste of hope that is necessary for music to be poignant and the album suffered for it. In three years time, Gibbard has made a 180º turn in both his personal life and, consequently, his creative efforts. He has kicked the bottle to the curb and made indie film sweetheart Zooey Deschanel his bride. For the first time in their 13-year careers, Death Cab have released a happy album about the joys of love, not the bitter pitfalls.
From start to finish, Codes and Keys, seems to tell a story. It is by no means a concept album but the order of the songs and their content are interesting and worthy of taking note. The album opener "Home is a Fire" suggests a longing for something different. The song ends with the line "Nothing's the same as yesterday," signaling the start of something new for our incurably longing and introspective protagonist. The next few songs seem to chronicle the disintegration of a past love (or life) and the cautious progress towards finding a new path. The album really hits its stride surprisingly on first single, "You Are a Tourist." As Gibbard has stated recently in interviews, the song is really a collection of affirmations; as the first verse states: "If there's a burning in your heart, don't be alarmed." This optimistic outlook is really the message of the album. At this point, Death Cab does something surprising. The following track "Unobstructed Views" begins very dark and slowly builds to an extremely positive lyrical exclamation of "just our love, just our love!" It drifts along with a haunting piano base that grows with beauty upon each successive listen. From this point on, Gibbard takes us on a 3-song flight of storytelling-as-lovesong, then a declaration of living completely in the moment on "St. Peter's Cathedral." Codes and Keys finally comes to a conclusion with "Stay Young, Go Dancing." Easily the most explicitly positive title in all of DCfC's music, this is a song that hammers in the final message of enjoying love and life because they are truly one in the same when done right.
Guitarist Chris Walla's arrangements and production are silky smooth in a manner befitting of a love letter album. Drummer Jason McGerr and bassist Nick Harmer provide a solid rhythm section perfectly complementing an album so lyrically-focused. The bottom line is this: on Codes and Keys, Death Cab for Cutie pushes their music into a new space both sonically and thematically. This is what a band looks like as it grows up. This is what a band looks like as its sound evolves beautifully. This is what a band looks like when it is in perfect sync with its songwriting. And to my fellow Death Cab fans, this is what Ben Gibbard sounds like when he's happy. I have to say I, for one, couldn't be happier for him.
"We are the same," says singer Ben Gibbard on the track "Underneath The Sycamore" on Death Cab for Cutie's seventh studio album, entitled Codes and Keys. It doesn't feel too far off as a generalization of the album, as it tries to sonically change things up without ever embracing it, giving tracks a sense of concept without the execution expected from a band that usually pulls it off. For many fans of the band, Codes and Keys may probably be considered as a slight step-up from the directly same-ole, same-ole musical approach of Narrow Stairs in 2008, but for occasional listeners like this reviewer, it may only somewhat satisfy their fill of Death Cab for the entirety of the record.
There's no doubt that Death Cab for Cutie sounds good here. Their sound is what has made them a homestead in the alternative rock world, utilizing intricate songwriting from singer Ben Gibbard and implementing cathartic atmospheres and sounds that can confound any average listener. Songs like "Transatlanticism" and "We Looked Like Giants" didn't pretend to show their colors, allowing the band to find inner-balance and seek a freedom from ordinary musical trends. It is these situations in which Death Cab breaks the mold and works best.
This is somewhat weaved throughout certain tracks on Codes and Keys, such as on the soothing album breaker "Unobstructed Views" and the aforementioned "Underneath The Sycamore," but for the most part, Death Cab seem to be undercooking their potential. Album opener "Home Is a Fire" starts off well enough, almost with the promise that this may be the album that finds Death Cab finding new sonic direction, but it never quite lives up to that promise. As catchy as "Some Boys" may be with its Depeche Mode-influenced hook, it doesn't really acquire a lead-up to anything transitional or revelatory like in some of the band's earlier work. There's no true sense of "change" that one might expect other than the possibility that the majority of songs can achieve greater potential. The only sense here is one of wanting more with each listen, and not in quantity.
Why they decided to not take the extra step to give these songs the breadth necessary to make them full and promising is somewhat disappointing, but it's still hard to complain that they don't have proper musicianship. There's nothing entirely wrong about Codes and Keys as far as what sounds they create and themes they discuss. Those qualities will remain with Death Cab until they really decide to shake things up, but in the meantime, Codes and Keys turns out to be a temporary blessing, with a few standouts here and there that stay true to Death Cab's earlier efforts on other albums, but that don't entirely change the game as one might've expected.
Check out the tracks below and see what you can make of Codes and Keys, now available at all major music retailers from Atlantic Records.
Death Cab for Cutie - "Underneath The Sycamore"
Death Cab for Cutie - "Stay Young, Go Dancing"