Bear in mind this vintage Death Cab for Cutie quote when reading this review. There is internal conflict in writing this musical assessment. This reviewer’s head wants to instruct the heart to rejoice at the sound of a new Death Cab album, but unfortunately the heart just can’t agree. It may be the band’s most masterfully crafted album thus far, but it seems the emotional thrust of the album misses the mark for quite possibly the first time in their career.
The album stutters into existence with a repetitive cymbal and guitar line, which is soon joined by Ben Gibbard’s unmistakable voice and a smattering of subtle electronic beats that grow more insistent until they are the new focus of the song–like a Squarepusher song with vocals. It has a couple of nice moments, but it seems to go nowhere, circling the same beat and then quickly moves onto the title track, “Codes and Keys.” It is here that it feels like the album truly begins and sees the band enter more familiar territory. Drums beat steadily and a simple piano chord backs Gibbard in his plaintive sing-song voice. Lyrically it’s familiar territory about “getting nowhere” but as the strings swell and the song becomes more akin to Arcade Fire, the words and music become far more hopeful as the phrase “we are alive” is repeated like a mantra. This is but a taste of where the album goes from here.
From there is the fairly rote “Some Boys” where Gibbard talks about boys who don’t know how to love as guitarist/producer Chris Walla piles on the effects. Things take a more interesting turn in “Doors Unlocked and Open” where they follow a fun and steady beat into an “ocean of sound.” The song feels weightless and burns with a constant speed perfect for driving. It’s almost disappointing when it ends only to be replaced by an echoey chant saying “fire grows higher” and the listener has to check the title to make sure this isn’t Dio doing Indie Rock. No, it’s actually the lead single “You Are A Tourist” that is easily the band’s weakest single in recent memory. The sentiment at the heart of the song, the overly familiar places in life feeling foreign, is an interesting one, but everything around it seems trite and a little too safe at this point in their career.
Once that iffy bit is done a brooding piano part comes in and once more Death Cab shows their love of the slow build, letting the piano and distant guitar plucking settle in for a good three minutes before adding vocals. The song is introspective and serene as once again the band implement a mantra as a heavily layered Gibbard coos “new love.” Once this sort of ambience would have been a centerpiece of his woe; instead it is now a place to calmly take in the full feelings of his newfound love and happiness. This song can be looked as the turning point. It only gets happier from here.
The rest of the album shuffles by in a prosaic haze. “Monday Morning,” “Portable Television” and “Underneath the Sycamore” all shuffle by with very little note. It wasn’t until staring at the iPod screen that the tracks even differentiated themselves. For the first four listens they whizzed by with only vague impressionistic emotions.
Things slow down momentarily with a quiet electronic buzz that vaguely resembles a church bell on “St. Peter’s Cathedral.” It’s a brilliant and moving track with a vibe that harkens back to Postal Service more than anything yet in the Death Cab’s oeuvre. Poignancy is quickly washed away as the album ends on a syrupy sweet note with “Stay Young Go Dancing.” This is a Ben Gibbard that’s new to the world. He talks about his woman and when she sings he hears symphonies. Other loving and sentimental statements like this throughout the song ensure it will be played at Indie kid/aging hipster weddings for years. In a different context it may not be a bad song, but in the context of this band, it’s damn near diabetes-inducing.
The short answer of why the change in direction is this: Ben Gibbard is now, for possibly the first time in his life, a happy man. He married actress/Indie darling Zooey Deschanel at the end of 2009 and from the sound of this record, it’s been pretty swell so far. A person’s well being comes first and foremost, so congratulations to him for finding that finally. Unfortunately, it has taken a toll on his music since this is a man whose trade is sad songs. So naturally, if a person came to Death Cab for “sufficiently depressing” music, which I know some do, they will be sorely disappointed with this release.
Musically things have changed because Gibbard encouraged Walla to play around with sequencers and synths and have fun with it, even claiming at one point that they wanted the album to sound like Another Green World by Eno. This means the jagged edge of guitars that played like emotional stings on Narrow Stairs are absent this time around, instead replaced by skittering beats and other flourishes.
Hopefully this album will be a grower. Disappointing to say it but this is their weakest album yet. This comes from someone who has loved all of their albums thus far, even Narrow Stairs and The Open Door EP, so know that is painful to arrive at this conclusion. Perhaps over time the head and heart will have a meeting to reassess the album, but for now the heart just doesn’t feel Codes and Keys.
By Jarad MatulaDeath Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys by ATL REC