Death Cab For Cutie has a new album. It’s called Narrow Stairs, and if you haven’t read the articles, then you may not know that it’s “bloody and loose” and more “hard rock” than any of their previous work. Or maybe you have no clue that guitarist Chris Walla is back as producer, and from there, the album was recorded on analog tape to minimize overdubs. These are the token details we’ve been given.
2005’s Plans, the band’s first major label release, is high-profile studio work – sparkling and calculated. Being the epitome of commercially viable indie rock and a band that’s proved themselves capable of making literate music in the face of popularity, the release of Narrow Stairs isn’t about doubt; it’s about questions. Like, how will the band live up to darling Transatlanticism? Or will Narrow Stairs come close to the ability of Plan’s platinum success? Will Ben Gibbard top his past lyric and vocal work? If the analog Narrow Stairsprocess really was “bloody and loose”, will we even notice, or was it more for their own well-being? Death Cab’s art pop as hard rock? Wait, really?
Well, let’s see. The album begins with “Bixby Canyon Bridge”, which starts right into familiar sounds: atmospheric, sweeping and an approximated path of room-filling sequencing. A small ways in, massive, no-holds percussion (accompanied by heavily fuzzed guitar and bass) thwarts the idea that we’d be getting another “I Will Follow You Into The Dark”.
And it’s important to reinforce that Narrow Stairs isn’t Plans or Transatlanticism 2.0. If anything, it’s a compromise. The band isn’t reinventing their own wheel, per se, but they are still exploring the structural landscape they’ve already built. The pop elements from Transatlanticism are there (even though a bit subdued in contrast to tracks like “The Sound of Settling”) like on the festive march of “You Can Do Better Than Me” and the flirty riff on “Long Division”. The dark romanticism of Plans are replaced by a dusky and observant attitude that snuggle up nicely with the analog production.
But how does Narrow Stairs speak to the band’s musicianship? The distortion on “Bixby” makes the song come alive, and it’s a trend we hear frequently on tracks like “Cath” and “Long Division”. There are bass lines too, many of them, that richen up the context of Narrow Stairs’ already hearty layering. They are front and center on the band’s eight-minute single, “I Will Posses Your Heart”. More thumpin’ four-string play captain on pessimistic but bouncy “No Sunlight”. Narrow Stairs utilizes a bass’ natural tonality in bewitching ways. Ben Gibbard shines still with his whispery, almost Zen-like lyrics (see “Grapevine Fires” and “Talking Bird”). Some of the tracks – like “Cath” and “Long Division” – might be the best songs they’ve ever written.
So maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself. “Pity and Fear” and “The Ice Is Getting Thinner” are outdone by the rest of the album. Others like “Grapevine Fires” and “Your New Twin Sized Bed” have taken several spins to sink in, and they don’t capture the right gut like “Cath”. The first single, “I Will Possess Your Heart” is far too long in context, almost defeating the linear, live band structure of the analog recording.
Death Cab has always built brilliant emotional connections with their listeners, both lyrically and instrumentally. In that aspect, Narrow Stairs is just the same as any of their previous work. It’s an experience that I, more than a casual fan, have come to internalize dearly, whether it be with with grand, clean-cut soundscapes or with some blood and tapes.