Album review: Death Cab for Cutie, ‘Codes and Keys’

If there’s one universal constant in Death Cab for Cutie’s vast catalog, it’s how readily it can be emotionally engaged, how easily it provides for catharsis of some sort or the other. Sensitive, barely contained jealousy (the 1999 “President of What?”); domestic, post-mortem anger (“Styrofoam Plates”); unwavering, Great-Divide-crossing devotion (“I Will Follow You Into the Dark”); freshly broken up loneliness (“Title and Registration”); determined, stalker-ish desire (“I Will Possess Your Heart”): even if it didn’t quite fit one’s circumstances, Death Cab’s music has always been tremendously emotionally salient, usually to the peak point of vicarious experience.

But just as Codes and Keys was advertised as a bit of a musical departure—“not so guitar-driven”—from their previous albums, the intimacy we’ve come to expect from Death Cab is, for the most part, markedly absent.

The opening track “Home is a Fire”, intends to somewhat urgently walk the listener into this new sound. It does so successfully, but—perhaps due to Ben Gibbard’s decidedly, disappointingly non-boyish vocals—fails to make the introduction an intimate one. That is, the sound is intentionally distant; the intended effect certainly wasn’t. The following, title track does little to reel the listener in, either: the instrumental focuses on a goofy church house piano, a pedestrian drum beat and a boring, swirling strings section. What follows is enough reason to hit the proverbial “eject” button alone: “Some Boys” is perhaps the most lyrically-trite track in Death Cab’s discography, a far too obvious potential preteen girl anthem. Aside from trying to harvest a fresh batch of Death Cab followers, it’s difficult to imagine why the same band that put together “A Lack of Color” decided this was LP-worthy.

But then, things begin to pick up a bit. “Doors Unlocked and Opened”—aside from the questionable, even distracting noun-naming lyrics—is enjoyable, with a driving bass line and bouncing guitars structurally not unlike those on the crescendoing “I Will Possess Your Heart”; they just never quite bloom satisfactorily. The following track, “You Are a Tourist,” begins with the same warm “bah-bah” echoes so ubiquitous in the Postal Service’s Give Up, and aside from a shady 90s punk guitar riff, appears initially to be a success. However, elements like the repeated lines “When there’s a burning in your heart” make it too impersonal, too prescriptive, and make its true intention quite doubtful: is Death Cab looking for a Pepto-Bismal spot? We can’t be too sure, sadly.

The mostly instrumental, ambient “Unobstructed Views” divides the album trackwise, and is perhaps the most logical starting point for the cautious Death Cab fan. Dark synths, alien keyboards and faint chimes sound as though bouncing off the walls of a dimly-lit tunnel, and when a thunderous bass drum accompanies Gibbard’s announcement of “New love,” the first deeply emotional moment of the album is born.

The following song, “Monday Morning”, is a standout. Suddenly present is the high standard of literary preciousness Death Cab has set for themselves: Gibbard carefully, beautifully spells out the fate of some long lost lover and thus romanticizes what is agreeably the least romantic of all times (Monday morning). All of this, in a wonderfully minimal pop song: an at-times grungy bass, a melancholy keyboard, and a dance floor synth all blend very, very nicely.

“Underneath the Sycamore” can be described simply as what one might imagine “Marching Bands of Manhattan” would sound like if covered by The Killers. But this isn’t quite a happy hybrid: Gibbard’s vocals aren’t big enough to fill up a stadium; the guitars are too restrained for a spaceship-transmission sound. And while the message is happily democratic and childish, the listener just can’t feel welcome underneath said sycamore as well.

Gibbard’s vocals are presented right forward in “St. Peter’s Cathedral”, which, again, starts off with a heavy Postal Service feel: a slow-pulsed dial tone-ish keyboard is Gibbard’s only accompaniment, and as layers of drum machine, other beeps, and acoustic strumming begin to fill in, that same “bah-bah-bah” sneaks its way in. The only disappointment here is minor: such a satisfactory, filling listening experience isn’t done service by a too-quickly punctuated ending. This would’ve been a logical choice for a jam session.

Perhaps this was done in intention of grabbing the listener’s hand and skipping amongst the feigned-floweriness of the closing track, “Stay Young, Go Dancing,” a track too busy for its own intended preciousness. Indeed, the album ends the same way it begins: with the listener not sure whether the track she just heard was a musical bookend or not.

Of course, this feeling is more disappointing here, because the only options are to search for some remarkability in Codes and Keys or content oneself with the old Death Cab. Or, to question one’s emotional affect—it just doesn’t seem possible that listening to any Death Cab album in its entirety (even several times over) could be such an unremarkable experience. While this may make it a more commercially applicable listen–after all, who wants to feel pangs of regret and longing in an appliance store?–it’s difficult to accept that after as many years fans have spent acquainting themselves with Death Cab, they’d be requited with such an impersonal, underwhelming product.