Death Cab for Cutie for being too saccharine, too delicate and too precious, or we judge Death Cab for venturing too far from that formula. Really, we all clamor for a return to the days of Transatlanticism and the Postal Service. Both of those albums were epic masterworks that seemed to foretell of Ben Gibbard's destiny to pull at least part of the sword from the modern rock composer stone. Since no recent album has exactly backed up those claims, the cache and love wears off, so while much of Ben Gibbard and Death Cab's recent accomplishments have resulted in great music, it's just not perfect enough for us. (Plus there's that whole Zooey Deschanel thing...) So, the best/worst thing any band in Death Cab for Cutie's position can do is release an album that ventures into different territory, diverse in sound, recognizable primarily because of the vocalist, darker, slower, sparser, less emotional, more mechanic and new. It's either going to succeed (as evidenced by the aforementioned Postal Service) or it could fail (general lackluster receptions to the new MGMT album, for example). So how do we judge Codes and Keys?
Ben Gibbard has gone "on record" to say the band isn't as guitar centric as it once was and that is evident from track one. "Home Is A Fire" is a wander, slow-burning song that heaves and breathes like a slumbering beast. It builds to small mountains, falls to delicate valleys and grows again. But what's gone is the lyric-heavy poetry found on previous Death Cab albums. Instead of precisely crafted stories, the vibe is one of patience and concern. Codes and Keys just feels different. The slow tone holds through "Codes and Keys" and "Some Boys," both of which reach only minor points of rising, feeling more like the sentimental lamentations of a Tom Waits-type world-worn barfly. On "Doors Unlocked and Open" the pace finally picks up, offering more of a pseudo-dance, pop-punk vibe, all filled with Gibbard's signature calls and cries. What happens here is actually a lot like a Postal Service song, without the electronic touches. Vocal manipulation comes in, and Gibbard feels miles away and underwater. It becomes, ultimately a catchy-as-hell pop song. And you're happy, as the listener, to get to track four and its reminder that the band will give you some riffs and some hooks.
"You Are A Tourist" keeps that theme alive. Death Cab starts to feel like a combination between "In A Big Country" by Big Country, and some of the proto-80s-punk-pop-dance of Bloc Party. Really, it's a very nostalgic feeling song, even when heard the first time. Ben Gibbard's vocals are mixed and looped and layered to the point where a call-and-response thing begins to happen that really enhances the track. "Unobstructed Views" calms everything back down, at least initially with a slow-loading piano intro that is exceptionally designed. It's not until halfway into the 6 minute long track that Gibbard's vocals appear as an echoing poet from above. As the song grows, it turns into a sweeping wall of sound, covered with repeating, ominous electronic touches. It's a song like a thunderstorm. You see it rolling in. You can feel the air turn cool and damp. And then the as it starts to rain, nature adds all the layers of sound and experience that make it truly special. Still, it's a slow track, one that burns ice-cold. "Monday Morning" is all buzz, fuzz and great tonal riff. Another very '80s style song that tries to hold the middle ground between huge acoustic new wave battle cry and folk rock. At the halfway mark, the electronic elements become more obvious, and though it doesn't quite hit a point of higher energy, "Monday Morning" feels like it gets stronger, healthier as it plays.
"Portable Television" despite its meager length, is a real treat. A straightforward love song that evokes imagery from a time when televisions had fuzz rather than just a screen from the cable provider or television manufacturer with the bouncing words "no signal." But, "Underneath the Sycamore" is another great, cute, catchy track too. It feels like a Ben Folds song at the outset with playful piano and chanting vocals. And it's on the poppy side of things, energetic, somewhat Olde Timey, but continuously joyful despite its lyrics. It never grows to a huge crescendo, never flies over the top. Gibbard remains pretty metered throughout, conservatively holding back a sonic explosion, which makes the track a little dry, but no less truly enjoyable. "St. Peter's Cathedral" goes back to the Death Cab roots. Gibbard carries the first minutes of the track. And it's a song about the size of things and the insignificance of creation, humanity, design and our place in the universe. It's also kind of U2-y, insofar as it sounds like a U2 song... perhaps mixed with a bit of "Take A Picture" by Filter. "Stay Young, Go Dancing" is perfect. I can't say a negative thing. And it closes the album perfectly.
As a departure, or as a continuation Codes and Keys serves only to enhance the mythos of Death Cab for Cutie. It shows Ben Gibbard's songwriting and vocal abilities off in strong fashion. And while some tracks are slow, and the pacing of the album feels a little like waking up without coffee at first, every aspect of the album works exceptionally. If you like Death Cab, this record may take a while to grab you. If you don't well, shit, I don't know how long it will take you to like it, but you will. Codes and Keys is full of significant callbacks to other artists, brilliant lyrics and catchy songs. You'll definitely find yourself stuck on a few. Listen to it below, go buy it, then hug it out with a loved-one on a bearskin rug.
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- The Smiths - Covered
- Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys
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- June 2: The Dodos
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