"Some boys don't know how to love," Ben Gibbard sings on [artist id="710356"]Death Cab for Cutie[/artist]'s new Codes and Keys album, perhaps unaware of the fact that he's just summed up the band's entire career in the process.
Of course, the object of that love — self, location, family, girls — has never really been as important as the sentiment itself. Death Cab truly are at their best when they're at their lowest, their most lost, be it on songs like "Styrofoam Plates" and "405" or albums like Transatlanticism and Narrow Stairs. They are, for all intents and purposes, a band that seems incapable of solving the eternal quandaries of the heart.
So what, then, will fans make of Keys, an album written after Gibbard did just that, marrying actress Zooey Deschanel and getting sober in the process (as he recently revealed to Spin magazine)? In keeping with that newfound clarity, he describes the disc as "more balanced than ever," displaying "a more even emotional palette" than the morose Stairs. And when those quotes are taken in context with the winging, wide-eyed guitars of first single "You Are a Tourist," perhaps the alarms begin to go off: Is it possible Gibbard has left his sad-sack past behind him? Has he finally figured out how to love?
Well, yes and no. Because while Codes and Keys (which hits stores May 31) certainly beams with rays of positivity, those rays are often obscured by the same dark clouds that have always dotted Death Cab's horizons. "Tourist" is a perfect example of this. Sure, it brims with sonic sunshine, but lyrically, there's a darkness to it, an urge to free oneself from the constraints of emotion and geography. "Unobstructed Views" pulls the same trick, only in reverse, starting off with a somber, piano-driven introduction before slowly blossoming into a full-blown paean to affection, with Gibbard repeating the mantra "Just our love/ Just our love."
In fact, with matters of the heart seemingly squared away, Gibbard turns his attention to the world at large, and, in the process, discovers that he's probably more lost than ever. Codes and Keys is a record about longing to feel connected in increasingly disconnected times, to find meaning in the possessions we surround ourselves with, to receive comfort in home, even if — as I wrote last week when the band unveiled some of the record live in Seattle — no one's quite sure where home is these days.
And it's in the moments where that longing becomes so sharp that it breaks the surface of the skin — songs like album opener "Home Is a Fire," the roiling "Doors Unlocked and Open," "Portable Television" and the chilly "St. Peter's Cathedral" — that Codes and Keys really hits its stride. Gibbard fills them with mentions of unblinking pane glass, unrelenting freeway traffic, unfeeling concrete and unmoving monuments to our faith. His bandmates match him every step of the way, particularly the rhythm section of Nick Harmer and Jason McGerr, who provide a propulsive slipstream on which Gibbard's words zip endlessly toward the skyline. And as both a player and a producer, Chris Walla fills the album with plenty of atmospheric touches — echoed harmonies, wiry, barely there guitar jags, hissing room tones, pulsing, burbling synthesizers — ensuring that we all get the message Keys is trying to convey: that no matter how safe, secure, ensconced or attached we all may feel, we are still all alone, and we will probably die that way.
In short, Codes and Keys is an ode to alienation, and no matter how hard Gibbard tries to push against that fact (like on saccharine album-closer "Stay Young Go Dancing," when he keens, "And oh, how I feel alive/ Though winter's advancing/ We'll stay young, go dancing"), he can't seem to change the inevitable outcome. And that conflict between the head and the heart is the key to the album's success. It is very much a temporal thing, an album made for no other time than right now. Because falling in love is a centuries-old concept at this point; falling apart while remaining eternally connected, now that's a new problem.