Codes And Keys

Death Cab For Cutie

Atlantic, 2011

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


For as long as they’ve been around, Death Cab For Cutie have had one of the most distinctive creative voices in rock—supple minor-key melodies inhabiting otherworldly soundscapes, supporting songs of distance and disconnection, loneliness and longing.  On classic albums like Transatlanticism (2003) and Plans (2005), they have in some sense (or perhaps just in this writer’s head, but go with it if you will) given form and voice to an entire generation’s melancholy.

Brooding, of course, has its own aura of romance, which may or may not have anything to do with the fact that in 2009, DCFC lead voice and principal songwriter Ben Gibbard gave up the solitude of bachelor life to marry actress Zooey Deschanel.  You could almost hear the band’s entire fanbase shiver and whisper “Uh-oh” under their collective breath.  Does goodbye single life equal goodbye melancholy equal goodbye to DCFC’s entire “beautiful gloom” vibe?

In the end, that worry seems to have been just one more reason to wait anxiously for the eventual 2011 release of Codes And Keys, which arrives as not just a relief in its familiar washes of intricate, textured sound and plaintive vocals, but as a triumph, both a return to form and a fresh new chapter for the very much still-vital quartet of Gibbard, Chris Walla (production, guitars, keys), Nick Harmer (bass) and Jason McGerr (drums).

Codes And Keys finds Death Cab’s music as willfully quirky as it’s ever been, full of unexpected choices, but both richer and deeper in its melodic sense and, at discrete moments, noticeably more positive in outlook.  Make no mistake, melancholy still rules these shores, but here the cool, familiar angst is cut through by occasional rays of sunshine.

“Home Is A Fire” kicks things off with a skittering cymbal figure that’s joined by a steady throb as Gibbard’s faraway vocals come in over the top, slightly distorted, a dreamy moment that does a gradual build until, like so many DCFC tunes, it assumes an almost hypnotic quality.  The title track follows immediately, another sinuous, pulsing groove to lose yourself in, a simple piano figure and backbeat decorated with soaring strings and echoey, rather Edge-like electric guitar.  Gibbard’s lyric, as evocative as ever, reads like a description of the claustrophobia that can descend at times on particularly intense relationships.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Some Boys” and “Doors Unlocked And Open” carry you farther off into the band’s sonic vision, both featuring elaborate guitar figures that craft a mood through an almost hypnotic repetition.  “Doors” in particular does a steady, intense, wordless build until Gibbard finally comes in with a patch of typically oblique poetry around 90 seconds in.  (The tension of the guitar line reminds me of Last Charge of the Light Horse, another act with a long, difficult, memorable name and terrific musical sensibilities.)

The complexity of sound paintings like “You Are A Tourist” is remarkable–layered, subtle, exotic and absorbing, vocals, guitars, drums, bass and various background textures all conspiring to construct a memorable melody.  In a brilliant one-two punch, album highlight “Unobstructed Views” follows.  Starting over with a gentle pulse that builds and just keeps evolving, the piano-based dreamscape circles and circles, trying on new angles on the same core melody until finally, suddenly, at the three-minute mark, the lyric begins and a whole fresh second half of the song blossoms, a song giving voice to the wonder of new love, one of the warmest songs they’ve ever done, that runs another three minutes until it fades away in a closing swirl around 6:00.

Evocative repetition over an underlying propulsiveness is again the order of the day on tunes like the soaring-chorused “Monday Morning” and “Portable Television.”  On “Underneath The Sycamore,” the urgency of the repetitions eventually feels almost sacramental, like a meditative prayer meant to draw enlightenment from your subconscious. 

That thought carries over directly into “St. Peter’s Cathedral,” in which Gibbard suddenly catapults over the somewhat familiar DCFC territory of life and death into a brief, intense colloquy on faith.  A vignette about St. Peter’s and heaven and hell, the lyric positions religion as either (a) “quite a master plan” or (b) a crutch constructed to help the human race deal with our collective fear of death. 

Closer “Stay Young, Go Dancing” is so uncharacteristically sprightly as to feel almost ironic, but I don’t think it is.  For one thing, its largely acoustic melody manages to sound both foreign and pitch-perfect for DCFC.  It’s simply another fresh tone being added to their sonic palette on this adventurous, absorbing, terrific album.  Codes And Keys finds Death Cab For Cutie back at the top of their game, spinning darkly poetic tales against hypnotic soundscapes capable of teasing emotion and insight out of the hardest hearts and heads.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2011 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Atlantic, and is used for informational purposes only.