June 12, 2008

Death Cab For Cutie - Narrow Stairs (2008)

Death Cab For Cutie returns with their seventh release and I honestly had a fraction of the anticipation for this one as I carried for Wolf Parade's brilliant follow-up. But then again, WP is a band that continues to satiate my aural fixation in ways that Death Cab used to, several albums ago...

Narrow Stairs is a noticeably darker, edgier, less idealistic and, well, more grown-up record. As brilliant as this may sound in theory, there's actually a lack of cohesion in the album's overall sound. The fact that this was produced by their very own Chris Walla also makes it damn near impossible to blame this discord on anyone other than Death Cab themselves.

There’s an experimental feel here, true, but sometimes experimentation is the last refuge for bands who are running out of ideas. Let's face it: dabbling with reverb and distortion (Bixby Canyon Bridge) doesn’t make you Radiohead. Neither does lacing a track with tabla (“Pity And Fear”) lead to an updated spin on “Norwegian Wood.” Lastly, holing up your band in a cabin in Northern California hoping to channel Jack Kerouac for inspiration definitely won't produce the musical equivalent to Big Sur. It's evident that genius remains with this uber-talented lot, except this record only seems to highlight the currently misguided state of said genius.

When considering the entire Death Cab oeuvre, their undeniable ability has already left an indelible mark on the musical landscape, while Ben Gibbard’s lyrical capability is about as boundless as his heart’s imagination. What seems to be missing here is the unforced inspiration of their erstwhile masterpieces [particularly, The Photo Album and more recently, Transatlanticism]. They’ve harnessed this magic before, but can they ever get it back? ::insert collective sigh:: Who knows? But in the meantime, Narrow Stairs best serves as a reminder that when inspiration leaves, it leaves with a vengeance.

The saving graces

  • Bixby Canyon Bridge – delightfully dreamy opener with great build-up that ends in wailing guitar and heavy distortion.
  • “I Will Possess Your Heart” – entrancing bass-line, 8 min. of musical tension with no sign of release, and the best lyrics:
    Outside your window / I see my reflection as I slowly pass / And I long for this mirrored perspective / When we'll be lovers, lovers at last
  • “No Sunlight” – melancholy lyrics contrast with upbeat music, ie. the perfect song to bop to when you’re going to CVS to refill your Zoloft prescription.
  • “Cath...” – lush guitar and heart-wrenching lyrics that remind you why you fell in love with DCFC in the first place. Ahhh.
The final verdict: Not quite a watershed musical victory, but veteran fans will still find something worthwhile on this record. And to new fans, queue The Photo Album > You Can Play These Songs With Chords > Plans > Narrow Stairs > Transatlanticism on your playlist, in that order… and your life will never ever be the same. I promise.


Anonymous said...

great review. No Idea u were such a critic

Mona said...

I actually felt really bad writing this. I used to always feel something after listening to them, but this one... I kinda felt nothing. Who are you, btw? :p

ancientindianwizard said...

I've been meaning to give this one a go for awhile now but have been hesitant due to loving "Plans" so much.. I might just have to pick it up this weekend.

Mona said...

Wow, you loved "Plans?" I think you're the only person who's actually ever uttered those words to me. Well, give this one a listen then, it's definitely better. What's your fav. DCFC one overall?