Those who love the emotional indie-rock musings of Death Cab for Cutie often cite lead singer Ben Gibbard’s honest, pointed lyrics as the highlight of the band’s talent. He can turn even life’s most inane moments — a look into the glove compartment of a car in “Title and Registration,” for example — into sharp stabs of nostalgia.
Death Cab for Cutie
Codes and Keys
But now he has a new message, implicit in Death Cab’s latest album Codes and Keys and it’s one of urgency. The band’s seventh LP is an honest, yet misguided, attempt by Gibbard to cut ties with his religious past, act like a happily married man and instruct everyone else to do the same in the process — before we’re all dead and it’s too late, of course. At times he’s successful; at other times it sounds like a bastardized Postal Service recording with a dull shade of optimism, half-hearted at best.
The musical fingerprints of Gibbard’s old electronic project are audibly evident in the scuttling hi-hats and frenetic kick drum of the opening track “Home is a Fire.” The acoustic and synth drums blend well and give the track an anxious pacing, especially with lyrics that compare Gibbard’s new home in quake-prone Los Angeles to his ever-changing life: “Plates, they will shift / Houses will shake / Fences will drift / We will awake.” Clearly, moving to Los Angeles after his marriage to actress Zooey Deschanel was tough, and “nothing’s the same,” as he reminds us again and again.
As promised, the album is far less guitar-centric, which allows other sounds in the foreground. Most tracks start with an up-tempo kick drum and add layer after layer of concert bells, synth pads and sweeping string accompaniment until Gibbard makes an appeal to his audience with his usual fact-of-life chants. By virtue of being something we haven’t heard yet, it’s a good thing. But it’s not the Death Cab we know and love.
Gibbard has clearly found some refuge from grief in his love for Deschanel. She’s the “burning in (his) heart” from the album single “You Are a Tourist” that drives him to move to L.A., a place he mocked in the song “Why You’d Want to Live Here” 10 years ago.
Still, the new album’s dime-store anti-religion rhetoric doesn’t reflect the originality we know Gibbard is capable of. Where once we had the airy, whispered pleas of “I need you so much closer” yanking our heart strings, we now have a laundry list of existential clichés — “we are alive,” “there’s no eye in the sky / just our love” and “there’s nothing past this” in the songs “Codes and Keys,” “Monday Morning” and “St. Peter’s Cathedral,” respectively.
Then again, sometimes we can tell he believes his own shtick, and that sincerity produces the lyrical poeticism we’ve come to expect from him. “Life is sweet in the belly of the beast,” he projects — louder than we’ve ever heard him sing before — over the pop-folk rhythm of the closing track “Stay Young, Go Dancing.” It is by far the most accessible track on Codes and Keys.
Like many experimental albums, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. One thing’s for sure: if you’re looking for the reliable, downbeat Death Cab, don’t bother.