One of the more interesting things about Death Cab for Cutie is how odd it is to chart the progress of Ben Gibbard’s voice. If you go back to the first record, Something About Airplanes, his voice acts as just another instrument. It’s mixed low enough that it registers at the same level as everything else, leading to a strangely dizzying effect, though not a bad one. It wasn’t until Transatlanticism that his voice truly came to the front of the mix, for once towering over the grandeur that his music seemed to embody. Death Cab is a band that, for better or worse, became part of the new school of bands you could never escape if you lived in Seattle, along with Modest Mouse and Gibbard’s other project The Postal Service. “The Sound of Settling,” and Seth’s undying love of the band on The O.C., put them at the forefront of heart-on-sleeve indie rock for the masses.
The best thing about the band, in my eyes, is that they were never like their peers, in that they were never content to stick to their niche. The follow-up to Transatlanticism, the vibrant and insular Plans, was an album that spoke to the masses of twentysomethings that got married too young and found themselves miserable: “Love is watching someone die, so who’s gonna watch you die?” he sung on “What Sarah Said.” The band’s last album, Narrow Stairs, promised to be a completely new direction, and delivered in a few places, including the eight-and-a-half minute jam session/stalker screed “I Will Possess Your Heart,” and the overblown opener “Bixby Canyon Bridge.” That album was beautiful, but it never quite lived up to what Gibbard talked a lot about in interviews: it just wasn’t as progressive as he said it was going to be.
So, here we are, on album seven (a number that blows my mind when I think to hard), and the real question is: have they run out of steam? The short answer is, no. The long answer: Codes And Keys is, at the same time, the album that Gibbard said he was making when they made Narrow Stairs, if it were to meld with the band’s unquestionably finest record, We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes, though without the impossibly sad narrative. The first time you hear Gibbard’s voice on this record, on “Home is a Fire,” it sounds like it did at the very beginning of “Bend to Squares,” or at the start of “Title Track,” where it blends seamlessly into the fold, and, in his own words, “spreads out, and occupies the cracks.” It’s an interesting change, and one that continues all throughout the record. It’s truly strange, hearing Gibbard step down a little bit, and accept his role as an instrument once more, but it’s something that made the band’s early works truly magical. The only time everything gives way so that he can truly resume his frontman duties is on the second-to-last track, “St. Peter’s Cathedral,” easily one of the best songs on the record.
Codes & Keys is semi-reminiscent of The King Of Limbs, where you almost forget the band has a guitarist. Chris Walla has become so much of a staple since We Have The Facts, and became even more of an integral part of the band’s fingerprint, it’s hard to imagine their music without him, but here we are. The instruments burst and bloom in a really smooth way on the record, meaning that it’s almost too easy to forget that It’s also a sound that Nine Inch Nails achieved on their last record, The Slip: where it is clearly programmed, but somehow feels organic, as though nature seeped into their Moogs or Rolands. In short, this may be what The Postal Service would sound like as a grunge band. It’s a good thing.
I feel as though I am alone in my still persistent love of Death Cab for Cutie, like most frown on getting to be a certain age and continuing a relationship with Bright Eyes. Whenever a new album is announced, I worry that it’ll be the one that proves itself as the limit of my love, and with every new album being released, I find myself dazzled yet again, even though they’re not exactly the most progressive band around. If Gibbard is running out of steam (and nobody could blame him after seven albums and 14 years), he’s definitely not showing is, and I’ll be with him until it happens.