REVIEW BY: Melanie Love
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/26/2008
I wanted to love this album. I was almost entirely sure I would love this album; I’ve spent the past three years since Plans was released playing through Death Cab For Cutie’s catalogue, memorizing these Washington-born indie rockers’ transcendent blend of sorrow and hopefulness. According to guitarist and producer Chris Walla, their latest release (the band’s seventh album and second major label release) Narrow Stairs, is less cerebral and mapped-out than their previous effort, and this new jammy impulsiveness shines through in the instrumentation: songs cut off abruptly and feedback washes past the thick guitars, giving the music a sort of jarring, closed-in feeling that fits in nicely with the more morose turn this album has taken, not to mention its sheer creepiness at times.
So far, so good. But where Stairs tends to falter is where Death Cab has always shone: the lyrics. Frontman Ben Gibbard has been the poet for a certain kind of sadness since Death Cab debuted in 1997, his brand of sorrow always laced with a hopeless romanticism and a quiet appreciation of life’s beauty.
And on some tracks, it’s still there. Opener “Bixby Canyon Bridge” is a stunning soundscape along the lines of “Marching Bands Of Manhattan” from Plans; swirling synths and slowly building drums back Gibbard’s soaring, plaintive vocals as he sings of climbing to Big Sur (in a nod to Jack Kerouac’s novel of the same name) but finding himself ultimately “no closer to any kind of truth / As I must assume was the case for you.” It’s expansive and achingly lovely, everything you’d expect from the band, and its follow-up, “I Will Possess Your Heart,” manages to do it one better.
Released as an eight-minute single, “I Will Possess Your Heart” can really just be summed up in one word: creepy. It’s solely a slow-burning instrumental song for its first half, until the vocals kick in and Gibbard half-pleads, half-promises “You got to spend some time, love / You got to spend some time with me,” creating a full-out menace that’s miles away from the quietly desperate Death Cab of previous albums. Though Walla talked of this album containing “lots of blood,” I really wish they would’ve explored this vein a little further.
Other standouts include “No Sunlight,” whose peppy beat provides a nice counterpoint as the lyrics dip increasingly towards bitterness, “Grapevine Fires” with its lush lyricism and downbeat touches of electric piano and organ, and “You Can Do Better Than Me,” a short sleigh-bell infused jaunt where a man decides to stay in an unfulfilling relationship “out of fear of dying alone.”
Still, for all the moments of near-brilliance on here, the band lapse too often into heavy-handedness, something which was altogether absent on their previous efforts. “Talking Bird” simply meanders (and really, the bird metaphor is nothing short of cheesy), and for the punchiness of its backbeats, “Your New Twin Sized Bed” is too on-the-nose (“You look so defeated lying there in your new twin size bed / With a single pillow underneath your single head.”)
“Pity And Fear,” meanwhile, sets the tale of a one-night stand to an almost claustrophobic, tabla-accented beat, but again, it’s all a little too overt to truly make its mark and there’s so much left unexplored. Closer “The Ice Is Getting Thinner” is more restrained, Gibbard’s voice muted and the instrumentation trickling through in flourishes, but still, the repeated metaphor tends to knock the listener in the head rather than accent the rest of the track’s subtlety.
For the most part, Narrow Stairs is a patchy effort; those intimate, indelible moments we’ve come to expect from Death Cab For Cutie are still present and as wonderful as always, just in lesser supply. Coming on the heels of Plans and Transatlanticism, both of which showcased a band able to traverse all rooms of the heart, something feels like it’s gone missing along the way, here, leaving the sense that there’s more to be explored that never quite gets reckoned with.
It’s worth your time, to be sure, but on the other hand, I can’t really see myself playing this one nonstop for the next three years.