Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys

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Death Cab for Cutie remains a pleasant listen for me.  I’ve been listening to their new CD, Codes and Keys, off and on for several weeks.  My initial opinion was that it was more of the same (despite a preference for keyboards over guitars this outing), then I liked it quite a bit.  Now, it’s back to just okay and I know why.

There’s something new here, but nowhere nearly enough.  One wonders if Death Cab will ever take a chance a la Wilco with its addition of Nels Cline… push the boundaries a bit.  The sameness is no surprise.  Writer/singer Ben Gibbard has two speeds of singing – a normal parsed delivery, and a slightly faster parsed delivery.  He’s got a good, well articulated voice, but over the course of 7 releases, yeah.  It sounds the same.

Guitarist/keyboardist/producer Chris Walla has a penchant for experimental  sounds, which are generally electronic adornments to the basic strums of each song.  These vary the tone appreciably and at times elevate a song to a different place, but there’s still a sameness to it.  Production values are clean and sonically sparse, which is necessary to give Gibbard room to make plain his lyrics.  However, the starker instrumentation leaves the only warmth in the recording to Gibbard’s voice, which is largely observational rather than involved.

The first song, “Home is a Fire,” grows to a warm spot over time, an interesting song about slow change in relationships.  The title track loses focus lyrically despite some great phrases.  “Some Boys” is an annoyance.  I’m a guy, and a chorus of “Some boys…” just doesn’t appeal, and though it’s a curious dig at whichever rock stars use and lose girls, it’s bite is lost in music without a punch.

“You are a Tourist” features a refreshing electric guitar lead and seems to be the primary inclusion for keeping the coffers full.  “Underneath the Sycamore” is perhaps the only song that reaches to the excellence that fans expect from Gibbard, but a story of escape from life’s difficulties via a car wreck isn’t likely to invite frequent rotation.

“Monday Morning” is more positive and catchy, but “Portable Television” suffers from good phrases with lack of overall focus.  “Doors Unlocked and Open” has an enjoyable lengthy instrumental intro, but the slightly trippy lyrics do not offer much substance.  In fact, the collection here falls short of the the writing standards that fans have come to expect from Gibbard.

Not that the lyrics do not shine in places.  The key songs are “Unobstructed Views,” “St. Peter’s Cathedral,” and “Stay Young Go Dancing.”  Gibbard has always been adept at writing about troubled relationships.  Recently married, a difference is apparent in a “love is all you need” theme across these songs.  “Unobstructed views” is the clearest:

There’s no eye in the sky

Just our love

No unobstructed views, no perfect truths

Just our love

The elevation of love to the divine isn’t a new concept, but Gibbard moves beyond that to the negation of “the God concept,” a curious tact in what otherwise reads as a love song.  “St. Peter’s Cathedral” lyrically attempts more equanimity to the divine.

St. Peter’s Cathedral built of granite but ever fearful of the answer

When the candle in the tunnel is flickering in sputters and fading faster

It’s only then that you will know what lies above or down below

Or if these fictions only prove how much you’ve really got to lose

At St. Peter’s Cathedral there is stained glass, there’s a steeple that is reaching

Up towards the heaves such ambition never failing to amaze me

It’s either quite a master plan or just chemicals that help us understand

That when our hearts stop ticking this is the end

There’s nothing past this.

There are hints here of which way Gibbard leans, but, to the band’s credit, the music supports the argument.  The song begins in a typical DC4C measured tone, but towards the end it builds to a crescendo as Gibbard’s refrain of “There’s nothing past this” becomes a mantra.  It’s very well done.  That said, I find it curious that a musical exaltation would point towards “there’s nothing past this” rather than toward some outworking of a future hope, call it whatever you like.

The final song, “Stay Young Go Dancing” is surprisingly refreshing, with a return to the warmth of an acoustic guitar, an audible reminder of how the tone differs on the rest of the CD.  Musically and lyrically, this song rests as a statement of what life is all about… when your view is that there is, indeed, nothing past this life.

And I’m swallowed in sound as it echoes through me

I’m renewed

Oh how I feel alive

And through winter’s advancing

We’ll stay young and go dancing

Suggested Tracks: “Home is a Fire,” “You are a Tourist,” “Unobstructed Views,” “Stay Young Go Dancing”

3 of 5 STARS



1 comment :

  1. Interesting. "You Are a Tourist" conjures up the music of several past bands all melded into one. Now I am going to have to listen to it several more times to pin down which ones! ;-)