If, like me, you had a friend that was all over the indie scene in the 2000s and are sick to death of hearing Ben Gibbard’s voice: Rejoice! The new album barely sounds like him!
If you were that friend: Don’t worry, the new album still has something to offer to old fans. Besides, Death Cab’s back!
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you may actually be the most likely to enjoy this album.
While Death Cab For Cutie‘s previous hits centered mainly on emotional, angsty lyrics set to raw, vulnerable guitar riffs, Codes and Keys, the band’s seventh studio album, marks a shift in style to more processed sounds and less guitar – as in, no guitar at all. And although many of the songs center around themes of homelessness and isolation, the airy piano and synthesizers as well as the bright percussion that drive the melodies keep the experience uplifting.
But along with some of the angst, the boys seem to have lost some of the emotional depth. Maybe it was an attempt to move in a new musical direction, maybe they were distracted by the success of their side projects, or maybe Gibbard was just too busy boning Zooey Deschanel (and really, can you blame him?) – but the vocals never seem fully committed. Gibbard’s too-distinct voice is synthesized and subjected to numerous Radiohead-inspired riffs until the sound is distant and removed. Not only that, but the lyrics themselves come off as generally stale and uninspired coming from the band that wrote the ultimate indie love song (you know what I’m talking about).
The album’s first single, “You Are a Tourist,” is somewhat of a letdown. While the song does feature one of the best guitar riffs on the album (and the accompanying piano is just beautiful), the lyrics never get much further than repeating clichés such as “There’s a burning in your heart” and the obvious “If you’re feeling like a tourist in the city you were born in, it’s time to go.”
The album, however, is not without its high points. There is the endearing “Some Boys,” in which, true to form, Gibbard sings earnestly that “Some boys don’t know how to love” over easy piano chords. The moody, synth-laden background adds an updated twist to an old style. (The deluxe version of the album also contains a demo version of the track stripped down to guitar and brass, which is sure to be a hit among fans of older tracks). The title track, “Codes and Keys,” shows off the band’s new maturity as amospheric violin and piano melt into the lyrics “Minor chords of major works in separate rooms of single life / We are one, we are alive.” The track’s subtle layers and harmonies are enough to merit a second listen.
A second listen may be the key to enjoying this album. Given time, the album’s tracks – from the airy vocals and drum loops of ‘Home is a Fire” to the contemplative “St. Peter’s Cathedral” – swell and expand to fill the new space the band has created for themselves as artists. While the album is missing many of the hooks and the appeal necessary to draw in old fans immediately, Death Cab for Cutie’s newest approach may still make converts of new and old fans alike.
– Mary Cass