Death Cab For Cutie
Narrow Stairs (European Import), 180G Black Vinyl LP Record, MOVLP1376
Love isn't watching someone die, contrary to what Ben Gibbard memorably sang on Death Cab for Cutie's major-label debut. No, love is watching someone grow and change and still staying with them-- whether we're talking about family, friends, romantic interests, or a little college-town indie rock band from about an hour-and-a-half outside Seattle. Death is just the dénouement. In the three years since their platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated Plans, Gibbard and Death Cab producer/guitarist Chris Walla have both entered their thirties, coming off a wave of successes that included 2003's Transatlanticism going gold and the debut by Gibbard side project the Postal Service becoming Sub Pop's best-selling disc since Nirvana. That's a whole lotta love.
Narrow Stairs, Death Cab's second album for Atlantic and sixth proper LP overall, is one of the darkest and most muscular in the band's discography, but they're still aiming for the same place: your heart. It's an album about growing and changing and becoming resigned to the fact that you'll never be truly content-- not even if you quit that day job, achieve your rock'n'roll dreams, and find yourself in a loving marriage. At times, the maturation feels forced; the more adventurous moments here are experimental only for such a high-profile group, and they don't play to Gibbard's sentimental, word-weighing strengths. Still, even the disappointingly sleepy Plans had ear-catching singles, and when Death Cab go with their pop instincts on Narrow Stairs, they bang out songs focused and evocative enough to win over maybe a few of this loved-and-hated group's longtime skeptics.
There are some vast expanses to navigate first, both production-wise and lyrically. Where Transatlanticism spanned an ocean, and Plansopened astride "the East River and Hudson," Narrow Stairs starts along the California coast, where Gibbard retreated to write the album. "I descended a dusty gravel ridge," his bookish tenor begins, in clear but vivid language, on "Bixby Canyon Bridge". Gibbard has said the song is about trying to commune with Jack Kerouac, who stayed in the same cabin to write Big Sur. From an initial echoey guitar trill, the track grows to pounding, distorted bombast somewhere between OK Computer and the new Coldplay single. -Pitchfork