CD Review of Narrow Stairs by Death Cab for Cutie
Recommended if you like
Air, Broken Social Scene, Cat Power, Fiona Apple, Dire Straits
Label
Atlantic
Death Cab for Cutie:
Narrow Stairs

Reviewed by Taylor Long

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lame "The O.C.," blame the hype machine (the concept, not the website), blame teenagers, blame the mediocre reviews of Plans, blame the mainstreamization of long-beloved indie bands (cough the Shins cough), blame the band leaving Barsuk for Atlantic, blame fame in general: at some point, Death Cab for Cutie became the kind of band easily dismissed by listeners and critics alike. They were stereotyped any number of ways, the Coldplay comparisons, phrases and terms like: “cutesy indie pop,” “wussy,” “emo” and “inoffensive.” True, the band is generally far from aggressive stoicism, but when did that become a requirement to be a “serious” artist? There were hints through the years that the band can write epics, experiment and be angry. It had just been awhile since we’d heard one. That is until the band released the first single from Narrow Stairs, “I Will Possess Your Heart.”

As a single, it was a bold choice. Over eight minutes long, Ben Gibbard doesn’t even start singing until about four minutes in. Not only that, but when he sings, he sings in the deeper voice he used to use more frequently on the band’s first two albums, and although he’s lamenting about love, he’s doing it assertively. It is not easily accessible in comparison to their other work, and it is not the average kind of song a band would pick for a single. But they did.

Death Cab for Cutie

As it turns out, it was also a rather deceptive choice. “I Will Possess Your Heart” is the most obviously weird song on Narrow Stairs. “Pity and Fear” comes in at a close second with bongos, the same darker feel of “I Will Possess Your Heart,” and another keyed-up jam moment. Outside of these songs, any hopes for any drastic changes in the way the band sounds will not be met. However, this is not Plans or Transatlanticism remade, thank God. Gone are the sugarcoated production and the embarrassingly trite lyrics, gone is Gibbard’s overuse of his higher register, gone is the feeling that the band is trying too hard. Death Cab hasn’t sounded this charged since the Stability EP.

The lyrical themes Gibbard tackles are similar to those from the last two albums: relationships, life and death. He’s clearly grown up, and his views with him. He still connects death and love, particularly the contrast of the fear of dying alone with the fear of staying in a dead relationship. At least five songs outwardly examine the complexities of long relationships and marriage, where only two could possibly be categorized as love songs (and one of them, “You Can Do Better Than Me,” falls in the former category, as well). If Gibbard and his girlfriend aren’t already engaged, Narrow Stairs indicates he may be trying to decide if he wants to be: and the answer seems to be a resounding “yes.”

Aesthetically, most of the material feels as though it could fit in somewhere in the Photo Album through Translanticism era of the band: piano heavy, atmospheric and occasionally poppy. The band keeps a short leash on its pop sensibilities, though. “No Sunlight” and “You Can Do Better Than Me” are the only tunes that scream pop, and “You Can Do Better Than Me” is kept at less than two minutes long (and it still sounds just fine).

Narrow Stairs blends impressively well as an album as opposed to bite-sized single song servings, but if there’s one major standout (the single aside), it’s “Grapevine Fires,” a dark ballad about the fires in California. Gibbard paints some of the most vivid imagery of his career, and his morbidity is at its most accepting (“I couldn’t think of anywhere I would’ve rather been / to watch it all burn away”). The real clincher is the way the band uses a group of voices to repeatedly and gorgeously emphasize the word “burn.”

In many ways, Narrow Stairs is the perfect, natural next step for Death Cab for Cutie. Had they jumped on the experimental train and let themselves run wild with it, the result could have been alienating. Had they gone even more candy-coated and accessible than Plans, they surely would’ve been met with more stereotyping and derision. They’ve done the right thing here – and for their sake, there’d better be some recognition for it.

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