Saturday, May 10, 2008

Review: Narrow Stairs (or, How Death Cab for Cutie Have Changed My Life)

I know this is supposed to be a movie blog, but I need to veer into music for a bit, and besides, given that I’ve published exactly one new post since the publication of the latest Manifesto, it’s not as if I’m radically changing the tone of the site. Before I start, a couple of disclaimers:

Disclaimer #1: I am not a music critic. I fully admit that I have absolutely no idea how to properly write a review of an album. In fact, only recently have I been listening to albums in their entirety and evaluating songs in the context of an overall record, rather than on an individual basis. Therefore, it is safe to say that I am poorly schooled in the theory of musical criticism. So anyone who reads this post and determines that I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about, well, now you know why.

(Of course, I suppose you could argue that I have no idea how to write a proper movie review either and rarely know what I’m talking about when discussing cinema, but let’s just not go there.)

Disclaimer #2: I really, really like Death Cab for Cutie. It’s intense. Ever since my buddy Brian introduced me to them for two years, I have become rather obsessed with their music, particularly their two most recent albums, 2003’s Transatlanticism and 2005’s Plans. As such, if they released an album covering songs by Kenny Chesney, Coolio, and Dikembe Mutombo, I’d probably look favorably on it. So I naturally approached their new release, Narrow Stairs (their second with major label Atlantic), with that customary mixture of anticipation and trepidation – excited for the possibility of beautiful new music, frightened that it might not meet my lofty expectations.

Before we get into the meat of Narrow Stairs, a few comments about Death Cab for Cutie in general. The reason I enjoy Death Cab’s music so much is very simple: Their lyrics are extraordinarily easy to understand. When I say “understand”, I don’t mean they’re deeply meaningful (although they are) or that they resonate with me on a personal level (although they do) – I mean you don’t need a fucking government-certified translator to recognize what they’re saying. Frontman Ben Gibbard has a simple, elegant voice and often operates the upper register. In today’s post-grunge era, such melodic texture would usually be swallowed up by thrashing guitars and intrusive percussion, but Death Cab consistently prioritize Gibbard’s words, granting listeners immediate access to his prescient lyrics.

This is not to say that the instrumentals are a mere afterthought – far from it. The band’s compositions are supple yet firmly constructed, with tightly woven harmonies perfectly accenting Gibbard’s aching melodies. It’s just that the instrumentation exists to complement Gibbard’s lyrics rather them overpower them. Death Cab for Cutie don’t generate noise, they make music.

(For the record, Chuck Klosterman makes a similar point in his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, claiming that country music is so popular because listeners can easily understand the lyrics. He goes on to say that the Dixie Chicks are awesome. I’m not quite with him on that one, but whatever.)

To be clear, I have absolutely no problem with bands whose lyrics are difficult to understand. Hell, Michael Stipe became famous precisely because he mumbled most of the lyrics on Murmur, and R.E.M. is one of my favorite all-time bands, even though I’ve never memorized anything more than the chorus from “Losing My Religion”. But Death Cab’s clarity of communication – their canny ability to convey their music’s themes with minimal effort (because, you know, you can understand what they’re saying) – makes them unique.

It also, paradoxically, represents a tremendous danger and risk of alienation. It’s all well and good to make your lyrics easily recognizable, provided those lyrics are intelligent and focused. If, however, they fall victim to laziness and sentimentality, then these flaws will be instantly exposed even to casual listeners. Many bands cunningly utilize their talent for noisemaking in order to mask their lyrical deficiencies (R.E.M. sadly again comes to mind on occasion, as do the Shins – if anyone would like to explain the lyrics of the lovely “New Slang” to me, I’m all ears). Death Cab for Cutie have no such security blanket. If their lyrics are flimsy, their music is beyond rescue.

Fortunately, this danger almost never materializes. Ben Gibbard may not be a true poet the way, say, The National’s Matt Berninger is, but as a songwriter he is exceptionally gifted in his ability to conjure sly metaphors and memorable images in order to execute standard romantic motifs. From the playful japes of Transatlanticism’s “Death of an Interior Decorator” (“He took a lover on a faraway beach/While you arranged flowers and chose color schemes”) to the haunting melancholy of Plans’ “What Sarah Said” (“It stung like a violent wind that our memories depend/On a faulty camera in our minds”), Gibbard repeatedly populates his songs with fully realized protagonists, almost as if he’s authoring short stories. The plots may be familiar, but the language is graceful, perceptive, and sometimes, yes, downright poetic.

(By the way, I don’t know who made this video for “What Sarah Said”, and I don’t know what it means, but I do know that it totally freaks me out. I don’t even think I want anyone to translate it for me. It’s better that I don’t know.)

The clear visibility of their lyrics, however, is not Death Cab for Cutie’s lone distinguishing characteristic. They also, for better or worse (often worse) typically demonstrate a steadfast refusal to conform to the conventions of modern songwriting. Eschewing anything as convenient (and reliable) as a formula – verse, chorus, verse, chorus – Death Cab frequently experiment, interspersing their albums with long instrumental bridges, introductions, and even conclusions. It’s hard to find fault with such vibrant originality, but this brazen heedlessness is often more frustrating than rewarding. Few can deny the cathartic power of the pulsing “Transatlanticism” – which features a three-minute interlude free of vocals – but the band also stultifies a would-be brilliant piece in “We Looked Like Giants” with a wheezy, unnecessarily lengthy guitar riff that doesn’t bridge anything so much as substitute for a proper ending.

Maybe it’s my typical mainstream taste in art, but I’ve always found Death Cab’s propensity for novelty to be a bit obnoxious. It’s not that the band is averse to writing hooks; they just seem to think that they need to provide additional ornamentation, lest they be confused with any other band. And maybe they’re right. I just can’t help but wonder if “We Looked Like Giants” might have been a pantheon song had it substituted the wandering guitars of its second half for a more classical verse-chorus combo. That said, Death Cab for Cutie’s music is always utterly distinctive, and in an era where pop music can be downloaded by the gigabyte, perhaps that’s saying something.

Which brings us, finally, to Narrow Stairs – you know, the reason I’m writing this post in the first place. I don’t want to get into a detailed comparative analysis, so let me just clarify that as far as my appreciation of prior Death Cab albums goes, I really loved Transatlanticism, and I fucking adored Plans; simply put, I’d rank Narrow Stairs between the two. It has a few clunkers that prevent it from achieving musical perfection, but it is nonetheless a splendid record that grows more rewarding with each successive listen.

Narrow Stairs is, at its core, a brilliant example of musical juxtaposition. Lyrically, Gibbard has grown darker and more introspective in the three years since Plans, and Narrow Stairs is replete with stories of loss and desolation. Yet the music is some of Death Cab’s most energetic yet, bouncy and buoyant, humming with promise and life. This summery style would seem at first to clash in disharmony with Gibbard’s somber narratives, but instead the conflicting tones coalesce into a marvelous symbiosis. Gibbard’s lyrics paint such a disconsolate picture that, absent of their accompaniment, they might be close to insufferable (though perhaps not to a sap like me). Under Chris Walla’s production, however, Narrow Stairs is anything but a depressing listen. Jason McGerr’s lively drumming and Nick Harmer’s steady bass create some of Death Cab’s most insistent beats ever, and Walla adds high-end keyboards and pulsing synths to further embolden the band’s sound. Gibbard’s voice, also, appears newly revitalized; light and airy, he sings of confusion, disaster, and heartbreak with an astonishing measure of soulful optimism.

Again, such odd musical fusion may seem incongruous, but it’s critical to the record’s success. Consider the beautiful opener, “Bixby Canyon Bridge”. It begins with a man following the footsteps of his lost lover (“I descended a dusty gravel ridge/Beneath the Bixby Canyon Bridge/Until I eventually arrived/At the place where your soul had died”). While this hardly seems uplifting, it’s a gorgeous melody overlaid with shimmery synths, and Gibbard sings of a man who is not depressed but compassionate, simply searching for answers. Likewise, the song’s conclusion (“Then it started getting dark/And I trudged back to where the car was parked/No closer to any kind of truth/As I must assume had been the case with you”) would seem to echo emptiness, but Gibbard’s falsetto instead suggests acceptance.

Similarly, “Your New Twin Sized Bed” – about a character (man or woman) grudgingly accepting a life of solitude – would appear to be a tale of disappointment and frustration: “The other side of the mattress and box spring stayed like new/And what’s the point of holding onto what never gets used?” But Gibbard’s melody is one of his most graceful since Transatlanticism’s “Lightness”, and the song’s undeniable sadness is tempered by its beauty. Meanwhile, “No Sunlight” uses pulsing electric guitars to offset its message of impending darkness, of a world where “clouds appear[ed] until the sky went black”. The delivery is lithe and peaceful, which makes its refrain all the more surprising: “You disappeared with the same speed/As the idealistic things I believed/And the optimist died inside of me.”

Which is odd, because Gibbard has never sounded more like an optimist. On “Cath…”, his words themselves take on a compassionate air. A sorrowful tale of a woman entering marriage out of desperation rather than love (“As the flashbulbs burst, she holds a smile/Like someone would hold a crying child”), “Cath…” gives Gibbard the opportunity to play the jilted lover. But rather than mock his women (as he has done in the past, most viciously on the stunningly callous “Tiny Vessels” and also on “Someday You Will Be Loved”), Gibbard empathizes: “The whispers that it won’t last roll up and down the pews/But if their hearts were dying that fast, they’d have done the same as you.”

All of this reveals Narrow Stairs as a subtle thrust-and-parry exercise, the meaning of which is ultimately dependent upon the listener’s mood. Those who approach the album in high spirits will be leavened by the record’s blissful sonic texture, while the more contemplative will be drawn to the sadness in Gibbard’s visible, poignant lyrics. As a result, Narrow Stairs is a remarkably fluid record, with songs shifting in implication upon continual revisitation.

The album is not without its missteps. “Talking Bird” is a ludicrous ode to a parakeet that falls vulnerable to Death Cab’s fatal flaw – its lyrics are plainly obvious for all to see, and they just don’t work. I suppose one could argue that there’s a metaphor to be found in passages such as “You’re kept in an open cage/So you’re free to leave or stay”, but I couldn’t get past the preposterous, languid introduction (“Oh my talking bird/Though you know so few words/They’re on infinite repeat/Like your brain can’t keep up with your beak”). It’s immediately followed by “You Can Do Better Than Me”, an insubstantial waltz whose forgettable melody robs it of its piercing message of acquiescence (“I fall in love every day … but I have to face the truth/That no one could ever look at me like you do/Like I’m something worth holding onto”).

Even the first single, “I Will Possess Your Heart,” doesn’t succeed completely. A potentially harrowing tale of obsessive love, Gibbard’s insistent chorus (“You gotta spend some time, love/You gotta spend some time with me/And I know that you’ll find love/I will possess your heart”) is impressively creepy. The problem is that it’s preceded by a four-and-a-half-minute introduction that almost masquerades as a low-key trance number, beginning with Harmer’s bass solo, then overlaying an additional keyboard, guitar, or drum beat every eight or 16 measures. It’s an admirable attempt at something new, but it’s too long and doesn’t generate the required buildup of suspense; as a result, by the time Gibbard delivers his most disturbing lines (“You reject my advances and desperate pleas/I won’t let you let me down so easily”), our attention has already wandered.

But it’s difficult to condemn Death Cab for taking chances, and it’s impossible to stay down on Narrow Stairs for too long, not when it features such a gorgeous piece as “Grapevine Fires”. Ostensibly a chronicle of a forest fire’s destruction, the album’s best track somehow shapes itself as a cathartic, cleansing vision of rebirth (as well as a sequel of sorts to Plans’ “Your Heart Is an Empty Room”). Sustained by one of the most beautiful melodies he has ever written, Gibbard sings of “the northern sky [that] looked like the end of days” with such gentleness and sincerity that it’s impossible to view “Grapevine Fires” as anything other than a celebration. It might seem odd for a couple to take their daughter on a casual drive to a cemetery in the midst of a natural disaster, but Gibbard’s lilting melody transforms it into something not only logical but picturesque, and it is here where he supplies one of his most beautiful images: “We watched the plumes paint the sky grey/As she laughed and danced through the field of graves/And there I knew it would be alright/That everything would be alright.”

How does he know that? I can’t say, but he knows it, and I’m inclined to agree. As long as Death Cab for Cutie keep making music, everything really will be alright.

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