Death Cab for Cutie - Narrow Stairs


"Digging in the dirt, to find the places we got hurt.” – Peter Gabriel

We’re complicated. A toy may bring about pleasure for a time. A solved puzzle may bring satisfaction. A completed project may bring fulfillment. But, more or less, these have little to do with the higher amplitudes of human emotion: love, sadness, joy, anger, etc. These are not derived from things or activities, but relationships. This isn’t to say that, oh, watching the nightly news or reading a work of fiction cannot cause an emotional response, but the peaks and valleys of our experience come from relationships with others.

This, of course, is fertile ground for art in all of its various forms. In music, whether it’s “Muskrat Love” or “Silly Love Songs,” (or zillions of others), we tap our toes, sing along, and have “life is good” thoughts. At times, however, sounds and lyrics can mislead. The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” is an observation of a command and control relationship, yet when asked, most would probably remark that it is a wonderful love song about caring. Similarly, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” lost every bit of its anti-war sentiment in the big beat and radio-ready tune. Most would remember only its chorus and think it a patriotic song. We prefer happy things, and we sometimes color things in improperly to make it so.

So what happens when a band releases a collection of music with rather dark observations about mature relationships which are unfulfilled or failing, where it isn’t possible to color between the lines? I’m guessing they make fans of critics, and fans become critical. Death Cab for Cutie’s “Narrow Stairs” is such a CD.

In this outing, Ben Gibbard explores the valleys of relational experience. The listener is not asked to remain sympathetic, yet each narrative is clever enough to invite consideration of both the situation and the honesty of the moment. And the moments are carefully chosen, avoiding more typical targets (divorce, hate, revenge) in pursuit of the insightful (defeated acceptance, unnerving possession, self-imposed isolation).

What the Police failed, “I Will Possess Your Heart” realizes. The song has a fairly muscular instrumental introduction that lasts several minutes. While good marketing sense would suggest something tuneful or bright, the music here is not engaging. The repetition of the bass line and tone of the additional layers provides a dark, controlling mood that ultimately becomes perfectly suited to the menacing determination of a relationship within the lyric. As art, it succeeds, but it’s a curious choice for a single. Perhaps the Police compromised their ambition for cash.

“Long Division” is an unusual but suitable metaphor for relationship differences that will never work out evenly. “Talking Bird” speaks to a relationship that should fly the coop but remains in a state of discontent because the known is safer than the unknown. “Your New Twin Sized Bed” describes the security and potential loss found in an unwillingness to risk a new relationship following the demise of the previous.

Each song has its own lyrical interest, and the overall set is a remarkable creative achievement. The problem, as with most Death Cab songs, is that though the music is well paired with the themes, there’s little that makes one want to listen frequently. Having reached to a higher level here, the challenge remains to provide an abundant tunefulness to their ambitions. If they can, they may yet turn out a masterpiece.

3 Stars.


  1. I disagree with you on a few things. The Police, though they pull you towards the tendency to forget the meaning of the song because of the music behind it, were what was popular for that spell in time. I still listen to them frequently and always will. I think Sting is a genius, lyrically and musically and has grown immensely from his days with the Police. I cannot imagine ANYONE thinking "Every Breath you Take" is a sappy love song... Anyone who thought so would be a dolt...

    As for DC4C, they too are doing what is in the moment but they have a sound unlike any other today. They remind me a little of They Might be Giants but with a darker twist. I have not heard the new album and your semi-review helps me want to run out and buy it. I will... tomorrow maybe. Ed and I both like DC4C. I do think your inaccurate on wanting to hear the songs over and over. I often repeat their songs and I crave them. They have such a unique sound in the "Emo" genre and it is refreshing.

    Keep up the great posts ;)

  2. Actually, Sting himself was himself surprised that people thought it was a caring song, such as a parent for a child. The pop tendency overwhelmed the lyric. No argument about Sting's music.

    As for repeated plays, each to his own. It's a very good CD.