Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Death Cab for Cutie: Narrow Stairs

Ben Gibbard is getting old.

Defunct relationships, contemplations of death, dating women who have kids.....yeah, Ben's all grown up. It feels like he can finally say things he's wanted to for a long time. And for the first time he doesn't have to hide his ever-introspective poetry inside cute lyrics and splashy hooks just so we'll keep listening. This time we have to listen, because DCFC is big-time now. They've hit "long-awaited" status. And it's about time.

Expect some grey clouds, darker than usual. Death Cab even gets close to breaking into a little grungy guitar-bass jam not two minutes into the album. And the lyrics follow suit. It's not that DCFC albums haven't ever treated themes like human mortality and broken relationships before. But where Plans' "who's gonna watch you die?" seemed sung by a twenty-something-year-old about feeling lost amidst untimely death, this album's repeated overtures to death, lostness, and failure take on the solemnity of a writer going on forty and not being able to stomach the view in the mirror. We are led to believe that Gibbard's relationships always have and always will turn out cruelly wrong. All but forgotten is the carefree sweetness of nighttime drives through the country that I loved so much about Transatlanticism. Now those country drives are tainted by the smoke of wildfires. Indeed the first refreshing, if bitter, line in the album comes in the context of cleansing by fire: "I couldn't think of anywhere I would have rather been / To watch it all burn away." No kidding, that's the only sigh of relief I can think of in all eleven tracks.

I don't want to give the wrong impression. I really like it. At the end, I'm glad that musically the album delivers what I wanted it to. That melodies still sparkle and pop. That Ben Gibbard still writes the best slow songs ever. That amidst the greyness, the depressing resignation to less-than-ideal relationships as life goes on, the "pity and fear," the old clothes that don't fit like they used to, Death Cab still finds a voice and a way to be self-deprecating, to be a caged bird and at the same time remember how it feels to be alive. Given the content, it holds up remarkably well as a coherent body of songs. Lots of people are going to say it's such a downer. So be it. I say it's a fresh, and very necessary, ode to realism, where Plans and Transatlanticism had been so over-sprinkled with idealism. And on top of that, there's the fact that the band can still really jam.

Sure, most of me really does miss the younger, brighter stuff. Transatlanticism for me will still be quintessential Death Cab. That is, until Ben works the growing pains out of his system and gets back to writing about stuff like inaccurately named parts of cars, and why dating is cute, and different names for the same thing.

So thanks, Ben, for the reminders about real life. We hear you. We feel for you. Now plow through it. We'll be waiting on the other side.


and tonight...with Anna and Spike's, the best little beer joint in town:

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