THE CRITIC: Has Gibbard Been Yokoed?
Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys
There’s something to be said about Ben Gibbard’s transformation from a Built to Spill-loving Northwestern weepie to indie rock’s poet laureate. Death Cab for Cutie, for all their splendid musicianship and Chris Walla’s knack for evolving their sound, have always been about Gibbard. Gibbard, bemoaning a meaningless relationship in “Tiny Vessels” or articulating that eternal feeling of moving on that “Photobooth” spoke to so clearly, always so straightforward with his lyrical bloodletting but talented with his knives. Gibbard made self-flagellation and depression and that universal feeling of not always getting what you want an art instead of a blunt instrument, and that was always the key behind Death Cab’s success. It’s what led to them being erroneously labeled “emo” by the mainstream media after Plans’ success, what led to massive, unyielding popularity for a band that otherwise would have just been another number in a “best-of-the-00s” compilation. Even as their sound expanded and swelled, as major label budgets tend to cause, Gibbard remained the constant: evocative, steadfast, and preternaturally attuned to the hopes and fears of insecure youth.
On Codes and Keys, Death Cab take that constant and make it just another cog in a sound that remains progressive yet coldly distant. The focus on keyboards and synths at the expense of traditional guitars is omnipresent, but it’s Gibbard, the Death Cab mainstay, that is missing. Not in the literal sense, mind you; his sensitive tenor is still the same one that desperately yearned for intimacy and warmth on Transatlanticism, but the feeling has changed. It’s evident in the way it comes to you across the speakers: swathed in effects, reverb and digitalized effects predominating and making the most human part of Death Cab come across too often as chilly and disconnected. The lyrics don’t help matters. At his best, Gibbard is cautiously optimistic with a tendency to veer towards cloyingly sweet, as he does on closer “Stay Young, Go Dancing,” a song which would seem more at home in a Lifetime movie rather than a Death Cab album. At his worst he seems content to just string picturesque phrases together in the hopes that listeners will imbue them with their own meaning. “Somewhere down, down / down in the ocean of sound / we’ll live in slow-motion / and be free / with doors unlocked and open,” Gibbard sings opaquely on “Doors Unlocked and Open,” and a prize to the person who can divine the meaning behind it. Songwriters by the dozen can be accused of being needlessly abstract, but when Gibbard opens “Unobstructed Views” with a cliché like “there’s no eye in the sky / just our love,” you can practically hear the thud.
Structurally, Codes and Keys is a sound album, and one much more intent on “experimenting” than the red herring that was Narrow Stairs. This is still Death Cab, as one listen to any number of catchy melodies here will attest to, but the band seem much more interested in textures and the space between them. This works on a song like “St. Peter’s Cathedral,” where the gradual buildup between skittish synths and vocal harmonies pays off, but not so much on “Unobstructed Views,” which confuses boredom and repetition with experimentation. But for the most part, Codes and Keys sounds like you’d expect. For all its effects and haunting atmospherics, “Some Boys” is all about the hook and ear candy melody, as is the lilting, pleasantly trivial “Portable Television,” which is about as straightforward a song as you’ll find on the album. For all the good tunes, from “Underneath the Sycamore” to the pounding ivories of the title track, one gets the feeling that this is just Death Cab going through the motions, trying out this heavy use of piano and an increased studio budget because, well, it’s there and it sounds pretty damn cool. It’s telling that one of the best songs here, “You Are A Tourist,” makes its money off a vintage Chris Walla guitar riff that propels everything forward with the kind of candid energy many tunes here lack.
So, has Gibbard been Yokoed? It’s tempting to say, given how many of the songs here sound like the result of a man whose happy, maybe for the first time in years, but doesn’t quite know how to lay it all out. “Monday Morning” would seem to disagree, a lovely bit of Postal Service-esque electronica that is one of the most affecting declarations of love Gibbard has ever penned and happily fits into Codes and Keys’ sonic aesthetic. Unfortunately, it’s the exception that proves the rule, as it stands out from many of the other tracks because it is so distinctively genuine and, in turn, easy to relate to. That’s the heart of Codes and Keys problem, a dilemma rooted more in Gibbard’s change than the band’s direction. The Death Cab of Transatlanticism and even Narrow Stairs is long gone, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing; singing about your darkest emotions for a decade plus is not the healthiest way to live (just ask Elliott Smith). Until Gibbard can harness this newfound happiness with the kind of lyrical flair his fans are used to, Death Cab remain in danger of being, well, just another indie band.