SEATTLE — On their upcoming album, [artist id="710356"]Death Cab for Cutie[/artist] long to go home, even if they're not quite sure where home is anymore. Codes and Keys is practically propelled by that paradox — home may be four walls and a bed, it may be the space between our two ears or it may be neither. After all, we carry so much of ourselves with us at all times that one could reasonably argue that we are always at home, even when we're on the road. But, then, the band wonders, if we're so connected, why do we so often feel nothing of the sort?
The answer they seem to come up with over the course of 11 songs on Codes is that home is everywhere and nowhere, probably at the same time. There's a reason the first song is called "Home Is a Fire," while the first single is called "You Are a Tourist," after all.
Anyway, we can save the existential discussion for the album review, because, for all intents and purposes, Seattle has always been Death Cab's de facto home (they're from Bellingham, a city 90 miles north). So it made sense that they chose the Emerald City as the place to unveil the songs from their new album, with a surprise show on Wednesday night at the Showbox SoDo, in the shadow of Safeco Field, to benefit the Seattle Public Schools lunch program.
Of course, there was another reason they chose Seattle ... this was, as Death Cab frontman Ben Gibbard put it midway through their set, "our first show in almost two years" — and who's more willing to overlook the occasional screw-up than a hometown crowd? So for two hours, DCFC took full advantage, working off the rust, delving into songs that spanned nearly their entire back catalog, testing out some new tunes and, yes, even messing up a time or three.
An airtight two hours, this wasn't, but it hardly mattered. The band was delightfully loose throughout, opening with a run of older songs — "New Year," "Cath," "Crooked Teeth" (which really clicked, thanks to some nifty guitar stop-startmanship between Gibbard and Chris Walla) and "Photobooth" — before finally debuting a pair of new ones: "Some Boys," a haunting tune featuring throbbing electronic pulses and a surging backbeat courtesy of bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr, and Codes and Keys' title track, which saw Gibbard plinking away at the piano while Harmer pulled slide chords out of a guitar and Walla hunched over a rack of electronics.
Then it was back to the archives: "Long Division," "Grapevine Fires," an ominously unspooling (and really great) "I Will Possess Your Heart" and "I Will Follow You Into the Dark," performed solo by Gibbard (with backing vocals by every single couple in the room).
The aforementioned "Tourist" followed, with Gibbard playing a gleefully gull-wing lead guitar, and then another Codes song — the poppy, Casio-fied "Underneath the Sycamore." From there, the set list swerved between old and new, as DCFC dusted off tracks like "Meet Me on the Equinox," "405," "Where Soul Meets Body" and "Why You'd Want to Live Here," but also unveiled the jaw-dropping "Doors Unlocked and Open," a stalking, wiry song that started with a long instrumental section and then gradually built to a buzzing conclusion, while Gibbard sang spare lines about isolation and wide-open claustrophobia into a second mic, his voice echoing over the din.
After that, though, well, things sort of went off the rails. "The Sound of Settling" was a joyous mess, with Gibbard stopping to ask if he was singing in the wrong key, then realizing his guitar was out of tune, but plowing through anyway while notes flew everywhere and the rest of his bandmates cracked up. A new song, "Portable TV," came off without a hitch, but as it gently floated away, a pre-recorded message (of what sounded like a televangelist) played for no particular reason — a mishap Gibbard played off by sighing, "It's been a while, folks," to loud cheers.
They pulled it together for the final two songs, a marching "Title and Registration" and a voluminous version of "Transatlanticism," which built and built and finally boiled over, with McGerr pounding the ever-living crap out of his kit (he removed his glasses before doing so). Then, with feedback still hanging in the air, Gibbard jokingly thanked the crowd for "helping us work through our first-show jitters" and exited to thunderous applause.
It may not have been perfect, but that was hardly the point. The fans streamed out of the Showbox giddy — after all, they were the first audience to hear most of Codes and Keys — and Death Cab looked very much like they had an absolute blast, even when things were going wrong. Sometimes, it's good to come home. Even if you're not sure where home is anymore.
Are you planning to catch Death Cab for Cutie on their upcoming Codes and Keys Tour? Tell us in the comments.