21 May, 2008

Album Review - Death Cab for Cutie's "Narrow Stairs"

Release Date: May 13, 2008
Label: Atlantic Records
No. of Tracks: 11

While Death Cab for Cutie are the very definition of an indie pop band in sound, very few people don't know who they are anymore. Their 2005 platinum-selling release Plans assured the band of that with its undeniable beauty and poignant songwriting. Even sales of the band's 2003 album Transatlanticism soared that year, and interest rose in the group's four other previous albums and LPs. They have had numerous songs featured in TV commercials, TV shows, and movies as well in recent years.

Now, frontman Ben Gibbard and crew have released Narrow Stairs after months of speculation and anticipation. While this is still a pop album in almost every sense of the word, the band has further expanded on their musical prowess and experimentation. Though the songwriting on this album doesn't delve to the same depths as that of Plans, it is still acceptable and has a tendency to stick in your head more due to its much simpler nature. Ben Gibbard's voice has always been the driving force behind previous Death Cab songs, but this album mutes that quality as the other band members really step it up in painting a lusher landscape around the lyrics.

The album opens with the track "Bixby Canyon Bridge". The song begins with Ben's voice and a spacey guitar effect before jumping headlong into a rock jam that highlights guitarist Chris Walla's most extreme musical experimentation on the record with louder guitars and a nice distortion-pedal squeal. The nearly nine-minute "I Will Possess Your Heart" follows and is the first single from the record. The song contains a long introduction featuring a wicked repeating bassline, piano, and a slow-building ambient guitar. Ben finally begins singing his appeal to a girl to just give him a chance to prove how great a partner he could be at the five-minute mark, and the guitars and piano are used to punctuate his lines as the bass continues to plod along underneath it all. "No Sunlight" is fairly standard within the context of this album, but it is still a pretty little ditty. "Cath..." is one of the brighter offerings about a girl with a fear of commitment who ultimately makes the wrong decision in that regard, an interesting spin on the well-worn female songwriter indictment of the opposite sex. "Talking Bird" is a slow contemplative piece dealing with that friend we all have who just can't realize the opportunites open to them right in front of their noses. "You Can Do Better Than Me" is yet another Ben Gibbard offering of a feeling of inadequacy within a relationship. "Grapevine Fires" is a first-hand account of the recent widspread California wildfires. The lyrics paint an accurate portrait of the scene ("The sky looked like the end of days"), the emotions of those caught in the midst ("I bought some wine and paper cups/Near your daughter's school when we picked her up/And drove to the cemetary on a hill"), and Ben's personal insight and hopes that the destruction can bring something better ("I couldn't think of anywhere I'd have rather been/To watch it all burn away"). "Your New Twin Sized Bed" is a witty tale of a guy who has given up on having the other side of a larger bed ever being occupied by the person on which he has been waiting. "Long Division" is a beautifully conceived break-up song that manages to not be depressing in the least. This song also displays a much louder and aggressive side of the band musically and does wonders for the flow of the album as it picks up the previous four song's gradually falling pace. The album closes with the song "The Ice Is Getting Thinner". The song slowly unfolds like a letter to a lover with whom the narrator has been with much too long. The song's content assumes closure from the words spoken, but never actually delivers a blow of finality. However, due to the music's gentle lilting quality, it still serves as an adequate closing track for the listener.

This is an overall fantastic album that will no doubt be very high on many music critic's top albums of the year lists in December. The band delicately walks the line between sticking to what got them to this point and expanding their style and changing certain elements for the sake of diversity and progression. Only time will tell how the general public accepts this balancing act. I can safely say that it is not of the same quality as Plans, but few band's can even hope to create such an intensely emotional yet unpretentious album, much less recreate it. However, this album should in my opinion cement Death Cab's place as one of the best and most important bands in the rock world today. I would say the future of this band is very bright, but it's better to simply enjoy the present and be thankful for what we already have.

Essential Tracks: "I Will Possess Your Heart", "Cath...", "Grapevine Fires", "Long Division"

Overall album rating (out of 5): 4.2

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