Monday, May 19, 2008

Death Cab For Cutie - Narrow Stairs

Death Cab For Cutie - Narrow Stairs

My reaction to 2005's Plans hasn't softened much over time. My opinion of the band never changed, especially after seeing them, but my disappointment in Plans remains clear. It's a toothless move towards the adult-alternative Starbucks/Grey's Anatomy crowd -- a crowd that would have come to the band on their own anyway -- by a band that knows better. Despite having come to enjoy the album quite a lot, Plans still stands out as the weak link in an otherwise outstanding alt-rock catalog.

Luckily, everyone's allowed a mulligan. They got it right this time. Apparently recognizing the sore-thumb softness of Plans, Death Cab have reacted by making an album much more in their idiom, placing a premium on spaciousness and the sensation of instruments being strained to their breaking points. The end result is far closer to what one expects from a Death Cab album. We may not get much in the way of uniqueness or originalilty within the band's catalog, nor anything that places Narrow Stairs firmly amongst its classic predecessors, but fans of the band will be hard-pressed to hold this record in disdain. The "major label" finger-pointing levied at Plans holds no water here.

Much as Modest Mouse's last release, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, tipped its cap to several points in the band's catalog, likewise does Narrow Stairs remind us of We Have The Facts ("Cath..." and "Talking Bird"), Transatlanticism ("Bixby Canyon Bridge"), The Photo Album ("Long Division"), and even Plans ("I Will Possess Your Heart") throughout. With all those shout-outs to past success, the album as a whole isn't all that cohesive. And there are plenty of pleasant-but-forgettable tunes like "Grapevine Fires." But it's a nice reflection of the band and its capabilities.

What's remarkable to me is that they've done this without being blatant about it, without the sense of desperation that one can read into something like R.E.M.'s Accelerate, where they're practically screaming to us, "hey, remember when we used to sound like this? Come back!!!" Narrow Stairs plays more like "this is what we sound like." It's no standalone masterpiece, but it stands as proof that Death Cab haven't lost their fastball.


  1. I've only listened to the new album about 3 times all the way through, so am willing to wait until I absorb it more, but first reaction couldn't disagree more. It seems even more vapid and pandering than Plans was (and I LIKED Plans).

  2. What parts do you see as pandering? It kinda depends on your definition of the term.

    In the sense that Plans at least has its own unique sound/personality/purpose, which Narrow Stairs does not? Or that they released a record that sounds like what we think they sound like? Yes.

    In the sense that they're dumbing themselves down or reaching for hits or something? I don't see that.

    I do grant that it's a supremely inconsistent album. You could probably take away anything you want from it... if only a subset of the songs has made an impression on you. I put it to you that you could pick any two similar songs out of the eleven and discover they have little in common with the other nine. So it's not like you're wrong, exactly... we're probably fixating on different parts of it.

    What's odd is that such a generally inoffensive album can garner such love/hate reactions. It's not like they released a bunch of goofy Blueberry Boat shit. It's all pretty straightforward.

    Somewhat unrelated note: they are currently the biggest band in America. One way or another, that's the opposite of a sign of the apocalypse.

  3. I agree that their #1 status is a very good thing.

    I think by pandering I meant that they were dumbing down their music in response to the more simple, sappy demands of their young audience, who came to them through the lens of the OC. And the black-tshirted-chainsmoking, sullen rockist in me mourned the passing of another small-club hipster favorite. Yes, that’s a pretty ridiculous stance to approach the band with, but there it is.

    On another listen, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think they’re simply chasing dollars. I think that when touring Plans, they saw that the writing wasn’t just on the wall, it was in the audience, in the form of 10,000 tweens and teens, screaming and cheering and dancing and crying and, yes, waving their goddamn cell phones like cigarette lighters. And in the face of all that, they made the choice that, yes, this is our audience. It’s not that they have changed what they’re doing, just that they’re honing their craft to meet the demand.

    And what’s wrong with that? 12 year olds gotta listen to something, right? They could do a whole hell of a lot worse than Death Cab. Further, isn’t one’s early teens a seminal moment in the formation of their music appreciation? I know that was the age when I cast off the Beatles, Stones, and Billy Joel in favor of the Stone Roses, Pixies, Ministry and Pearl Jam. If Death Cab is filling that role for the millennial generation, who (besides smelly old rockists) cares if not all their albums are as quirky, unique, or interesting as their earliest work?

    PS - Long Division is great.

  4. PS - Long Division is great.

    That's all I ask.

    Actually... that's not all I ask. Some end-of-the-school-year essay questions:

    1. Compare and contrast:

    a. DCFC's path to success, and R.E.M.'s

    b. Narrow Stairs's place in DCFC's catalog, and Automatic For The People's place in R.E.M.'s catalog

    c. Ben Gibbard and Michael Stipe, both lyrically and musically

    Do not overstate the comparison. On quality, the comparison is obviously an Epic Fail and holds no merit. Base your arguments strictly upon target audience and maturity of band/band's sound as compared to their humble beginnings.

    2. Along the lines of #1b, and speaking to concerns about DCFC: can a longtime R.E.M. fan be justified in resenting their mid-period output when Automatic was borne from it? I'm not emotionally bound to Automatic the way many people are, but it's gotta be considered their "required" album. Is that really an occasion for judgment and begrudgment?

    3. If Narrow Stairs is considered a graduation of sorts from obscurity, which song is the "Chasing Cars" that nails the coffin shut? Which song inspires your desire to defecate on these bothersome teenagers? Have they not written it yet? Have they written it already?

    3b. Fun tangent! Which part of Gary Lightbody gets removed first once we convict him of crimes against humanity and disassemble his body: the hands, or the eyes?

    4. "Honing their craft" versus "selling out"... more accurate, or more diplomatic? Why? Support your argument with evidence.

  5. Is it me, or did you crop the black guy out of the Elbow photo to make the Death Cab photo?

  6. New title of blog: "Brooding And Balding"

  7. Answering in brief---

    #3- the silver bullet of awful on Narrow Stairs is No Sunlight. Granted, I Will Follow You Into The Dark is WAY worse, but still, yuck.

    #3b - definitely his hands, so that he can't write any more awful poetry. His high school yearbook has got to be running thin on source material.

  8. I knew it! I was thinking about how it was another sunny, bouncy song with sad, depressing lyrics, in the vein of Sound of Settling or I Was A Kaleidoscope... but not so good. Then I thought, "hmmm, I bet No Sunlight is the song that really set Lehr off." Goddamn, I love being right.

    (Of course, I really like No Sunlight, cheese and all. But I do not begrudge anyone who doesn't agree.)

  9. I also want to put out there that I Will Follow You Into The Dark is unbearable in an "ewwww, kissing is gross" kind of way.

    Consider what another writer would have done with the same subject matter. Gibbard is one of the few people who can write that earnestly and sincerely about those sorts of emotions. Treacly maybe, but not without insight: he makes you believe he's got that depth of thought.

    In fact, the violent reaction IWFYITD inspires is evidence that the song is doing its emotional job on some level. (Not to continue belaboring the parallels, but this is similar to my revulsion to "Everybody Hurts." Shameless? Yes. Awful? Can't say that.)

  10. DCFC should film a video for IWFYITD parodying the video for everybody hurts - just a camera panning around while a whole lot of people off themselves...

    In other words, The Happening.