Rantings, reviews and lists from a person who structures half his life around obsessing over music.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Death Cab For Cutie - Narrow Stairs (2008)

3.0 ★/6.0 - 6.9

Secretly, nobody likes change. It's inherent in Humans to gravitate towards our comfort zones. But who knows where the world would be if people didn't evolve, grow, move on and move out. Death Cab For Cutie understands this well enough. Scenesters still decry this once-loved Indie guitar-pop band for turning their backs against the underground and entering the major-label studio. But ultimately, two of Death Cab's most financially and critically successful works (Transatlantacism and Plans) came from this career trajectory. So for a band whose style (and gross income) has benefited so much from change, you'd think they'd be happy to welcome it back with open arms. But Narrow Stairs shows that, in reality, Ben Gibbard and co. are as apprehensive towards transformations as the next person.

The common consensus is that this is Death Cab's "experimental" album. But if you've grown attached to their current stream of OC-friendly guitar pop, you don't have to worry. Narrow Stairs' perceived experimentalism is more obvious in idea than in practice. "I Will Possess Your Heart" is probably the main source of the talk. It opens with 4 instrumental minutes of Can-esque jamming and spacious atmosphere led by a soulful bass riff. Also, "No Sunlight" and "Long Division" carry dense, intricate guitar-play and driving Neu!-style rhythms that distinguish them from typical Death Cab fare, yet still fit perfectly with their sing-along qualities. Even though "Pity and Fear" falls flat in it's attempt at traditional tabla-driven Indian music, Narrow Stairs' boldest tracks point to what could've been a spectacular new chapter in Death Cab's career. But the biggest problem of the album is that the band seems so resistant to make the full-fledged leap into the unknown, even though they clearly have the capabilities. Too many tracks hide behind the same AM pop territory they hinted at with their last two albums. In particular, the mid-section spanning from "Talking Bird" to "Grapevine Fires" settles into a lazy lull of humdrum hooks. Even after getting back on track with the slinking beauty of "Your New Twin Sized Bed", "The Ice Is Getting Thinner" prevails as a completely underwhelming closer, filled with lifeless cliche that leaves the listeners asking themselves, "is that it?".

Any way you look at it, Narrow Stairs is a polarizing album. Death Cab's experiments are exciting enough to get previous detractors on board, but those people will undoubtedly be let down by the straightforward interior. Inversely, those who jumped on board with Transatlantacism and Plans probably won't welcome the new influences very nicely. And ex-fans of their first few albums, will probably fall in love with "Cath..." (which strongly recalls Something About Airplanes) but will be unimpressed with both their typical tracks and their new jams. If Death Cab had just applied to a single mode, they might've retained the focus that makes all of those aforementioned albums so great. Instead, they've made a strange transitional work that offers small snapshots of the band's strengths and wide-scale landscape photos of their fears.

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