This review originally appears on North by Northwestern
Let’s start with the monster. “I Will Possess Your Heart,” the lead single of Death Cab for Cutie’s new album, is nothing short of mammoth. Following in the footsteps of great long tracks by Yo La Tengo and Built to Spill, it starts slow, small and simple, and builds in a seemingly endless fashion before revealing front man Ben Gibbard’s vocals, alone in the spotlight as he inhabits the mind of a stalker unwilling to let the love of his life go. It is chilling in its build, its reveal, its march down from the zenith. In a stretch of eight-and-a-half minutes, Death Cab has found its artistic drive again.
When the band made the leap to a major label after success on The O.C. and prominence as Seth Cohen’s favorite band, they stumbled slightly with their 2005 release Plans, though they achieved hits in “Soul Meets Body” and “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” Something was off: The bigger budget hadn’t given rise to a new approach or a growing sound. The band just put their normal sounds to tape. No artistic risk, no artistic reward. Three years later, they’ve emerged from a difficult and diverse studio experience with an album that propels them off a creative cliff.
Narrow Stairs is not a happy record by any stretch of the imagination, filled to the brim with dark lyrics and darker characters. Even the most upbeat track, “No Sunlight,” declares an absence of light and optimism. On Plans, the band sounded completely clean; all of their parts were fully polished and easily digested. Narrow Stairs sees the band’s music careening around, letting the echoes of their instruments hang in the air. It is a grittier, dirtier record that sounds as though it has taken a few punches.
Gibbard has always had a knack for heavy-handed, overly dreamy lyrics (see “Marching Bands of Manhattan” or “Crooked Teeth”), but here he mostly remains grounded, forming a wide range of dark characters. He shifts through a strong-headed stalker, a friend of a broken-hearted woman (“Your New Twin Sized Bed”), and a man watching a woman marry the wrong guy (“Cath…”). All of these narrators are anonymous, but Gibbard finds a way to once again develop characters in the way he used to have mastered (see “Styrofoam Plates”).
The sequence of the record is not unlike the trajectory of the sound in that mammoth second track, “I Will Possess Your Heart.” The first four songs bleed into each other fantastically, but then in “Talking Bird” and “You Can Do Better Than Me” the band gets a little bored, even while Gibbard’s lyrics delve deep. It helps that those two tracks are two of the shortest on the album, as they head into a five-track closing sequence that ends the record on just as high of a creative note as it started.
Even with those few blemishes, the album is held together by its travel down a darker path, one that the band previously seemed content to stare at, unable to walk down. They suffered from stagnation on their previous few releases, but here they’ve regained momentum. Perhaps it was a critical backlash against Gibbard’s voice or the band’s inevitable super-saturation in pop culture with their previous hits, but something made these men focus. Hard. It’s certainly paid off, with an almost spotless record that eases Death Cab out of their comfort zone. Hopefully they’ll continue down this more dangerous road, because adventurous music is so much better than the same sounds over and over, and on Narrow Stairs Death Cab have finally embraced that fact.