Sunday, May 25, 2008

narrow stairs by death cab for cutie

Long before I’d heard this album (or even "I Will Possess Your Heart," the eight-and-a-half-minute single), one thing was apparent: it wasn’t going to be like 2005's major label debut, Plans. This prospect would have thrilled me two years ago, when I was crying for a return to their earlier, less refined, more guitar-driven sound. But then I went through extensive therapy, and I developed an ever-increasing appreciation for Plans' dense, unified landscapes, enough to feel a little nostalgic for it now. If Plans was a desolate prairie, then Narrow Stairs is a jagged, rocky beach front.

For a band like Death Cab for Cutie, who now have six full-length albums to their credit (seven, if you include You Can Play These Songs With Chords), and who have achieved a level of success either remarkable or depressing, depending on your perspective and/or level of possessiveness, it would be easy to fall into a comfortable rut. They refuse to do this. As a direct reaction to the "surgical" process of recording Plans, Narrow Stairs was recorded to tape, largely live, with few overdubs. Imperfections were left to be absorbed as part of the songs' character and texture. And because this review is a solid two weeks late, you've heard all of this before.

I've been waiting, listen after listen, for some great epiphany regarding this record: that moment when all the songs settle into my brain a cohesive unit and it all makes sense to me. That's not happening. Instead, my initial impressions persist of a collection of songs united only in their lack of unison. Rather than seeking to disguise this fact, however, the decision seems to have been made to embrace it, as evidenced by the seamless and occasionally abrupt transitions between the songs, which enhance a vague roller coaster feeling. Somehow, it works.

Lyrically Ben Gibbard continues to move away from the abstract and towards linear and more literal storylines. Songs like "Bixby Canyon Bridge," "Cath...," and "Grapevine Fires" offer sharp, clear narratives, and "Long Division" bounces along with a typically clever metaphor for being a "remainder". It's on "Talking Bird," "Your New Twin Sized Bed," and "The Ice Is Getting Thinner," where Gibbard gets himself into trouble, opting for the slightly-too-obvious, and with a backdrop that fails to be quite engaging enough to make up for it. To be fair, I am decidedly not a lyrics person, but even after extensive soul searching, I just can't find it in me to swallow lines like you look so defeated lying there in your new twin sized bed / with a single pillow for your single head. Call me a cynic if you must.

In the end, Narrow Stairs is neither a masterpiece nor a failure. It has its highs and lows just like any other Death Cab record. I don't know about you, but I find this perversely encouraging, because it means that their best work might still be ahead of them. At their decade mark as a band, that's something to be excited about.

(photo Death Cab for Cutie: Ryan Russell)

mp3: "No Sunlight" by Death Cab for Cutie

2 comments:

LMS said...

Cynic!

ako said...

I left myself wide open for that one, didn't I?