There are essentially two reactions to Death Cab for Cutie’s music: the hater’s and the evangelist’s. The former denounces the glib lyrics, wonders what everyone is whining about, and ends the dismissal with, “And what the hell does ‘Death Cab for Cutie’ mean, anyway?” The latter defends songwriter Ben Gibbard’s poeticism, empathizes with his protagonists, and replies, “The name comes from the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band in the Magical Mystery Tour film. Duh!”
Death Cab For Cutie Narrow Stairs
Death Cab’s newest release, Narrow Stairs, will do little to change this dichotomy. While the band’s many fans will eat up its unprocessed, Chris Walla-produced instrumentals and feast on Gibbard’s Kerouac-inspired lyrics, DCFC’s second major-label release will create few converts in either camp. Nonetheless, Narrow Stairs offers plenty for evangelists to evangelize. Opening with “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” an homage to Kerouac’s Big Sur, Gibbard follows in his hero’s footsteps, longing for an epiphany. But his only revelation is seeing how badly he wants the place to speak to him. “In the silence it became so very clear / That you had long ago disappeared / I cursed myself for being surprised / That this didn’t play like it did in my mind.” Sparse guitar arpeggios pierce through Gibbard’s voice like sunlight through trees, building to the more aggressive, head-bobbing, and decisively rock-led conclusion that “you can’t see a dream.”
The next track and first single, “I Will Possess Your Heart,” is poorly represented by its radio edit. The album version, with four and a half minutes of instrumental build-up driven by an almost manic bassline, is a far better telling of a well-intentioned stalker’s story. The LP’s other memorable characters include the lonely schlep in “Your New Twin Sized Bed” and the reluctant bride, “Cath. . .”
At times the lyrics seem clumsy, as in “Long Division” and especially “Talking Bird”: “You’re kept in an open cage / So you’re free to leave or stay / Sometimes you get confused / Like there’s a hint that I am trying to give you.” Gibbard may not know why the caged bird talks, but luckily for us, the band’s musicality helps lighten the sometimes heavy-handed imagery. And it’s easier to excuse the low points when offered pinnacles like “Grapevine Fires,” which dances the fine line between creation and destruction. As a wildfire blazes, a couple takes to high ground with a bottle of wine and paper cups, creating a beautiful ballad amidst a backdrop of chaos.
Overall, Narrow Stairs offers everything that Death Cab haters hate and Death Cab lovers love: raw sentimentalism, stories of heartbreak and abandonment, and the accompaniment of guitar, piano, and drum riffs that vacillate as much in style and timbre as the highs and lows of human emotion.