by Justin Wilder
Special to iVoryTowerz
Ben Gibbard, vocalist-guitarist of Seattle-based band Death Cab For Cutie, seems to specialize in writing about failed relationships and wrong paths traveled. Gibbard has written about finding old pictures of his ex in the glove compartment and a dark Kodak moment from a failed marriage.
These sort of details land like knife twists on the band's latest effort, Narrow Stairs. Previous Death Cab records have allowed listeners to sympathize with Gibbard's characters, however on this record most of the characters come off as more scary than warm and fuzzy. The resulting 11 songs are interesting and drive along the band's new sound which seems to be leaning more and more towards despair.
Death Cab for Cutie's previous record, 2005's Plans, was focused around the smooth production of producer-guitarist Chris Walla who has also made records with bands such as The Decemberists. Plans was a wide open record full of warm expansive melodies. Its characters dreamed of escape, sat in the sun and saw only wide open roads in front of them.
Narrow Stairs seems to be its opposite. The multitrack recording of the previous record has been replaced with the sound of a band playing in a room. The feedback sometimes cuts over vocals, and drums fight through bass lines. A strong feeling of claustrophobia exists in the pauses between tracks which are usually very short or non-existant. Most of the breaks are bursts of noise or the start of a tape recorder. These recording techniques match the mood of the album. Lead single "I Will Possess Your Heart" starts with almost five minutes of a mid-tempo grove before becoming a stalker's love letter. "You gotta spend some time with me," he sings, noting his reflection in his beloved's window as he cruises by, "and I know that you'll find, love / I will possess your heart."
Narrow Stairs almost works against Gibbards' voice — a pure high tenor whose choirboy quality puts the dark mood here into relief. "Talking Bird" features feedback spikes and portrays a lover whose feelings are tinged with loathing and "No Sunlight" tells of the death of an optimist over a perky backbeat.
However, there certainly are some weaker moments on the record. "Your New Twin Sized Bed" ("With a single pillow underneath your single head") is a eulogy to love that is far too straight forward. However, even Gibbard's average lyrics still shine with great literary prowess.
Gibbard has openly discussed the influence of Jack Kerouac's hopeless, end of the road, Big Sur had on Narrow Stairs; the opening track is named after a place in Big Sur. The narrator in "Bixby Canyon Bridge" goes on a journey to that landmark but can't seem to come "closer to any sort of truth" than when he first set off. At the end of the ghostly Narrow Stairs, Gibbard seems to have gathered a great understanding of lovelessness and how people seem to exist in the twisted wreckage.
(Promotional photo of Death Cab for Cutie from Atlantic Records. The band will resume its world tour on May 24 with a performance in Bend, OR. To see Death Cab for Cutie's video for "I Will Possess Your Heart," please check below.)
Death Cab for Cutie
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by Justin Wilder