Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys

This is almost a scary album for me to review.  Stepping out here and reviewing a band with the history in the underground music scene like Death Cab isn’t always the easiest.  It’s always a lot easier to review bands that most people have never really heard of, but reviewing a band that pretty much everyone, at this point, is familiar with is a little bit different.  People either love or hate the direction they have taken, and most people tend to feel very strongly about whether this band was better back in the day, or if they are continuing to develop into an even better band.

I was introduced to Death Cab for Cutie my freshman year of college.  In those years they had a much more quiet and reserved sound to what they were doing.  That is saying something since most Death Cab material is still rather subdued.  However, the record prior to being signed to Atlantic records, Transatlanticism, finally had them really begin to develop their sound.

As part of my research for reviewing this album, I went back and gave all of the past Death Cab albums a listen.  There is a striking difference between the albums that precede Transatlanticism and the second half of their catalog.   Blame it on more money for better recording, blame it on the band beginning to mature, or go the sell-out route.  Either way, it is clear they began to really come into their own.  Before Transatlanticism the vocals seemed much quieter and almost sad.  The guitars were a little grungy, and those earlier albums seem almost depressed.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love just about every album that Death Cab has put out; however, now a days, I’m not blasting “Something about Airplanes” while driving down the road. (which is pretty much where I do most of my listening) In college these albums got me through a lot of paper writing, but, just like the band, I feel like my tastes are developing.  Therefore, I really like the direction that Death Cab has taken over the recent years.  On the last album, Narrow Stairs, they even ventured back here and there to their old sound.  Now, it would seem they are almost completely done with that old sound.

What could be the reason for the change in overall sound?  Isn’t Ben Gibbard sad anymore?  The answer seems to be not really.  Probably the biggest contributor to Ben’s emotional turn around is his new-found sobriety.  In an interview with Spin Magazine Ben states, “It got bad enough that I thought that if I didn’t stop, somebody was going to tell me I needed to.”  Evidently, his drinking problems got pretty bad.  It also probably helps that he met, dated, and married Zooey Deschanel.  (Yeah she is on my list) Either way, this album comes across as another turning point for a band that has already made a few changes over their career.

Codes and Keys does have an overall light-hearted feel to the album.  My favorite song on the album, “Monday Morning”, comes through with a bass and drum line that are the driving backbone of the song.  The organ sounding key board caries the melody provided by Ben Gibbard’s voice.  It all comes together with a very full sound that some Death Cab material used to lack.  The song lyrically references a female going through, and looking back at, her life.  Lyrics like, “She may be young but she only likes old things, the modern music it ain’t to her taste,” seem to give hope to a girl finding herself in the world.  Gibbord’s chorus, “The night is gonna fall and the vultures will surround you, when you’re looking in the mirror what you see is gonna astound you, but all these lines and greys refine, they are the maps of our design, of what began on Monday morning”, seems to be looking on the bright side of getting old.  This is quite a bit different topically from what Gibbard’s outlook used to be.  All in all though, it really creates a great song.

There are quite a few other pop-forward songs on this album as well. The first single off the album, “You are a Tourist”, has some incredibly poppy sounds to it.  It sort of reminds me of when “The Sound of Settling” came out on Transatlanticism.  Gibbard’s guitar sounds are so clean and poppy, and his vocals are so light and happy sounding, that you almost think you’re listening to a different band.  “Stay Young, Go Dancing” has a minstrel quality to it that make you think someone should almost be doing a little jig to it.  Lines like, “When she sings I hear a symphony,” really lead you to believe Ben has found legitimate happiness in his life.

There are some slower songs on the album as well.  It really wouldn’t be a Death Cab album without a little slow stuff.  “Unobstructed Views” is one of the longer songs on the album.  It has a long musical intro that clocks in at a little over 3 minutes.  The interesting thing about even the slower songs is that they all still sound more full, and Ben’s voice sounds more powerful than it ever used to.  There is also some really nice harmonizing that goes on in the middle of this song that is pretty uncharacteristic of Death Cab; although, very welcomed as well. “St. Peter’s Cathedral” is another slow one on the album.  This one is a bit more stripped down and definitely my favorite of all the slow ones.

“Underneath the Sycamore” is probably the most interesting lyrically.  It paints a lovely picture of waking up having survived a gruesome car crash.  The opening lines are, “Lying in a field of glass underneath the overpass, mangled in the shards of a metal frame, woken from a dream by my own name”, which help to show you they haven’t completely lost all of that good old-fashioned emo they started out with.

I have read a lot of views that seem to think a happier Ben makes a crappier Death Cab.  I really can not bring myself to do that.  Sure some of his new-found happiness has come across on the recording, but I think this really isn’t too much different from some of the stuff we heard on “Plans” and “Transantlanticism”.  I’m sure some people are still pining for the days of “Something about Airplanes” and “We have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes”, but I think it’s pretty clear those days are behind us.  This is still a really good album that I think a lot of Death Cab fans will enjoy.

Teacher Grade: B+

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