On The Record: Death Cab Grow A Pair, Make A Great Album
I don’t know why I didn’t pick up on it sooner, given that the warning signs were out there for months: the talk of “bloody and loose,” the all-or-nothing mentality displayed in an online trailer, the promised (threatened?) eight-and-a-half-minute singles … it was clear that Death Cab for Cutie had gone insane.
There seemed to be no other way to slice it. Given all the chatter about their new album, Narrow Stairs, they had seemingly gone into the studio (or, more specifically, three studios) with the intention of, a) systematically destroying the fanbase they had built up over the course of a decade, or b) infuriating their major-label handlers at Atlantic. There really seemed to be no other explanation. The album was recorded on tape, with little-to-no overdubs. It was supposedly darker, more dissonant than 2005’s Plans, or anything they had done previously. It was going to be a deal breaker, a real win-or-lose proposition. Fans were either going to love it or curse its very existence. This was clearly going to be a visceral experience, full of blood and guts and reverb pedals — all things that no previous Death Cab record had ever been.
It was, essentially, going to be the record on which they made the leap or crashed headlong into the Bixby Canyon. There was no in-between.
Naturally, my interest was piqued. As I wrote in an edition of Bigger Than the Sound last year , I enjoy nothing more than a good audio train wreck, and from the sound of things, Stairs seemed to be headed that way. It seemed like Death Cab were in w-a-a-a-y over their heads, reaching for something that was beyond their grasp. And, to be honest, I was sort of hoping that it would turn out that way. To me, Death Cab had always been nothing more than the Pacific Northwest’s premiere purveyors of wussy, cloying indie rock, and to see them fail would, in some way, validate everything I had ever thought about them.
There’s only one problem. After hearing Narrow Stairs earlier this week, it turns out that everything I had known about Death Cab was wrong. They are actually a really great band, and Stairs is unquestionably the best thing they’ve ever done. It’s a ballsy, brave effort, sonically every bit as dissonant and sanguine as you have heard, full of songs that thrash and rattle and bounce around echo chambers, tunes that display muscle and bravado and even brains. Lyrically, Ben Gibbard — who had always erred on the literal side a bit too much for my tastes — goes to places he’s never visited before, documenting the harrowing (and often unspoken) truths that course through our brains when we’re trapped in dying relationships or dead-end lives. It’s terrifying and unsettling and liberating all at once — a record that sounds like a band throwing caution to the wind and just going for it, which makes it everything you could possibly ask for from a group of musicians, and an early contender for the best album of 2008.
Without getting too much into things (the folks at Atlantic wouldn’t take too kindly to that), there are moments on Stairs that stop you dead in your tracks, send shivers up your spine and make you go “Whoa” (and when could you ever say that about a Death Cab record?). Like the first four-and-a-half minutes of “I Will Possess Your Heart,” a propulsive whirl of stalking bass line, spindly guitars and stabbing piano. Or the big-hearted middle section of “Cath … .” Or even the pair of songs that close the record — the spacey, tabla-infused “Pity and Fear” and the icy, somber “The Ice Is Getting Thinner.” Through it all, Gibbard paints watercolor portraits of crushed expectations (album opener “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” “No Sunlight”) and dashed hopes (“Your New Twin-Sized Bed,” “You Can Do Better Than Me”). The fact that none of it sounds like anything DCFC have ever done before makes it all the more amazing … and all the more impressive.
In short, it’s the album on which Death Cab make the leap, graduating from one of indie’s premiere acts to one of the best bands in the country, a formidable and fearless outfit existing at the exact intersection of critical acclaim and commercial success. This kind of thing only happens when bands stop trying to be all things to all people, shut themselves off from the outside world, and simply play. If they’re good enough — and clearly, Death Cab are — then greatness follows. It’s what happened to Radiohead on OK Computer, or Beck on Odelay or even the White Stripes on Elephant. And now you can add Death Cab for Cutie to the conversation, and whether Narrow Stairs has the same cultural impact as any of those other albums remains to be seen — I’m not even sure any of their fans are gonna buy it — but suffice it to say, it deserves to be heard by as many people as possible.
Of course, there’s always the chance that I could be wrong about all this and that I’ll look back in a year’s time and be like, “Wha?!?” (I have been known to go a tad bit overboard about albums from time to time.) But, in the spirit of the record — which, as Walla told me last month, was “less brain and more gut” — I’m not pushing “delete.” I’m staying with my first reaction. I’m going to get embarrassingly excited about a record, because I feel that Death Cab deserve it. Narrow Stairs is a great album, one that could make them very famous, but could very well also kill their careers. And you get the feeling they know that, but they don’t really care. After all, there’s no other way to really explain an album like this. They put it all on the line, which is something that I wish more bands would do these days. Whether they crash and burn is sort of up to you now, isn’t it?
No pressure or anything.
B-Sides: Other Stories I’m Following This Week
50 Cent appearing at “WrestleMania” is a metaphor that works on so many levels, I’m not even sure where to begin.
“Now you muthaf—as done brought out the beast” is in no way grammatically correct, which in no way takes away from its awesomeness. In fact, it probably only adds to it.
Questions? Comments? Concerns? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.