Now expected like the next coming messiah, Death Cab For Cutie
and their music would be without a doubt one of the most universally
respected and inoffensive acts present in today's current musical
spectrum. Drumming up little in the way of negative criticism
and being one of the top-played artists on music tracking websites
like Last.FM seems to solidify the feeling that Ben Gibbard
and company can do no wrong. And so it would be no surprise to
say that their latest album Narrow Stairs was garnering
much prerelease excitement, as those both hugely dedicated and
those slightly intrigued began checking off the calender days
'til the album's release.
And why not? 2005's Plans was heralded by many as their
best work to date and has already gone down in some indie buffs'
books as a modern day classic. There was little question as to
whether Narrow Stairs would deliver on the goods, considering
that Death Cab For Cutie have yet to release a single song that
couldn't be considered at least decent to good, but how well the
foursome is able to deliver their standard emotional ballads and
upbeat jugband blues is another question.
The album starts naked with "Bixby Canyon Bridge" which,
like traditional Death Cab tracks, starts stripped and quiet and
slowly builds to an emotional climax, letting the listener believe
that they will be in for another extraordinary collection of lamentations
on heartbreak and the struggles of distance. But whereas the opener
seems to promise more of what all us fans have grown to expect,
Narrow Stairs could very well disappoint in some areas.
"I Will Possess Your Heart" lacks the creative punch
of past singles like "Soul Meets Body" and "The
Sound of Settling", feeling like a B-side to one of Death
Cab's more polished and healthy songs. Though brash to say, it
could very well be considered one of the band's weakest tracks
in their entire catalogue, showing little in the way of the ingenious
lyrical stylings of Gibbard and the playful engagingness of their
instrumentals. Narrow Stairs remains a little rocky throughout
the first half of the record as "Cath..." feels overly
distorted and rushed, with the cutesy melody of "No Sunlight"
and twistedly metaphorical lyrics of "Talking Bird"
not being nearly enough to keep the listener from feeling slightly
concerned for the direction of the record.
But dear listener, don't be deceived just yet. Leave it to the
shortest track on the album to be the one to turn things around.
Clocking in at just under two minutes, "You Can Do Better
Than Me" ushers in the greatness that Death Cab has long
been known to deliver. A slow pseudo-ragtime beat chugs along
with choppy piano chords and a tambourine chime while Gibbard
recites some of the most genuinely adoring love lyrics heard in
recent years: "I have to face the truth that no one could
ever look at me like you do/like I'm something worth holding onto."
Absolutely stellar in both its construction and its simplicity,
the little love song that could is what gives Narrow Stairs
its jumpstart and propels its engine into high velocity.
Later tracks like "Your New Twin Sized Bed" unleash
the golden pen within Gibbard that plays with the art of the metaphor
while never becoming too cryptic to isolate listeners. (Seriously,
when is he going to release a book of poetry?) The album reaches
its emotional peak during the closing track, "The Ice Is
Getting Thinner". Like former Death Cab albums, the final
song is the much anticipated somber reflective number. It carries
on with falsetto vocals and a guitar as delicate as the deteriorating
ice to which Gibbard juxtaposes a dying love. It's in this melancholy
confession that the genius of Death Cab For Cutie comes to light:
They never become self-loathing or focus too much on the sadness
of the situations that they write on, instead choosing to let
the listener feel the weight of emotion themselves through the
vehicle of the music and the bluntly astute writing.
It may not be as instantly effective and moving as Plans,
or as heartbreakingly sublime as Transatlanticism, but
given some time, [Narrow Stairs] could grow quite a bit
on the listener. Even their misses could be considered better
than average, but it would still be wrong to view Narrow Stairs
as a perfect record, especially in comparison with the foursome's
past two records which impeccably presented the talents of the
better to the delight of the listener. Though overall it is a
success, Narrow Stairs seems to be just a few steps short
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