Sunday, October 5, 2008

Follow them into the dark

Death Cab for Cutie
Narrow Stairs
Score: 7

Ben Gibbard writes drama, not comedy. But even with that in mind, the songs on Death Cab for Cutie's sixth album run notably darker than those on Narrow Stairs' nearest predecessor, 2005's Plans. And with fewer melodic entry points, the album isn't easy to get into.

Now four years removed from their indie-label days with Barsuk and enjoying a higher profile than ever before, Death Cab took a minor risk by making a less accessible album. Of course, it's obvious they weren't weren't too concerned with its commercial appeal, judging by the length of the first single, "I Will Possess Your Heart." Giving commercial radio stations an eight-minute-plus song is a good way to get ignored. Yet the single found a strong radio presence, even if many stations evaded the time commitment by playing an abbreviated version.

"I Will Possess Your Heart" showcases a lesser-known talent of Death Cab: the long song. Back in 2002, the steadfast trudge of the Stability EP's title track --- likely influenced by slowcore pioneers Codeine, for whom Gibbard has expressed admiration --- demonstrated that the band could lock in a mood and keep a song interesting even in lengthy instrumental passages. The plangent title track to Transatlanticism and an extended version of "We Looked Like Giants" on the The John Byrd E.P. proved this was no fluke.

At first, "I Will Possess Your Heart" seems to fit with Gibbard's other portraits of bittersweet romance: It's just a fellow following his heart, hoping for the best, eager to please and earnest to prove. But the second verse exposes the man as more than persistent, beginning with "there are days when outside your window / I see my reflection as I slowly pass." The way this development creeps up on the listener pairs well with the night-driving groove of Nick Harmer's bass and the canter of Jason McGerr's drums in the 4 1/2-minute instrumental opening section, almost as if they're a harbinger of the window-peeping to come. In retrospect, the title itself hints at the character's intentions. He's not going to win your heart; he's going to possess your heart. This guy's not taking no for an answer. He's going to get what he wants, possibly by force, if it comes to that.

Though this drift into seaminess is probably the only moment that will make some younger Death Cab fans squirm, Narrow Stairs has plenty of cobwebs in its corners. If they were about the same person, "Cath" and "You Can Do Better Than Me" could be successive chapters following a meek lonelyheart: "You can do better than me -- hey, wait, Cath! I'm better than that guy!" And the brooding guitars of "Talking Bird" and feedback that hangs in "Bixby Canyon Bridge" convey definite friction.

Musically, "No Sunlight" is deceptively bright, with a surf guitar prancing and with piano highlights that glisten like dewy pie cherries. It's Gibbard's youth, all footloose and fancy-free. Until the clouds roll in. "The optimist died inside of me," he declares, even as the track remains happily upbeat. It's akin to Transatlanticism's "The Sound of Settling," a giddy sing-along that began, improbably, with the lyrics "I've got a hunger / twisting my stomach into knots." "Long Division," farther along Narrow Stairs, keeps similar company. Building itself on bass throbs and an oblong chord progression, the hooky Photo Album throwback is likely to join "Baba O'Riley" and "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" in the hall of mistaken song titles, thanks to a repetitive chorus involving the word "remainder."

Still, the darkness has brought some stumbles. Tabla proves an odd fit (go figure) with Gibbard's vocals and the band's standard instrumental toolbox, disabling "Pity and Fear," though the Indian percussion works better for them when it's largely covered up by electric guitars. Puzzlingly, the track spikes in volume, then immediately cuts off, followed only a second later by the deliberate guitar tones of the last song, "The Ice Is Getting Thinner." The album has good pacing and logical sequencing up to this point, making it that much more frustrating of a decision.

The album closer leaves us on a pensive note. Returning to nature metaphors, Gibbard tells how two people have grown apart with time, not unlike ice floes. "We're not the same, dear, as we used to be / the seasons have changed and so have we."

The same holds true for Death Cab.

1 comment:

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