I’ve been putting off listening to Codes and Keys, Death Cab for Cutie’s eighth LP. A bulk of the commentary surrounding the album was along the lines of “it’s too happy” – and no one listens to DCFC to put a smile on their face. Even the singable, upbeat “Sound of Settling” is really about anxiety and regret. In a recent interview, Death Cab’s (formerly) cheer(less) captain Ben Gibbard confirmed a seachange: “If the only reason you listen to Death Cab for Cutie is that you like maudlin, sometimes depressing lyrics, there’s no shortage of that kind of music for you to enjoy. Also, we have an entire back catalog of that shit.” We love that shit, Ben. But I see your point. I braced myself for the barrage of pop and newfound happiness, and was pleasantly surprised not to find the purported sunshine and rainbows everyone was so worked up about.
Now, this isn’t to say that Codes and Keys falls in the same sad-bastard category of some of the band’s previous releases; you will not find anything close to the emotional one-two punch of Transatlanticism and Plans. Nor will you find the sepia-toned romanticism the band was putting out ten years ago. Death Cab for Cutie is looking decidedly forward, but the future isn’t exactly bright.
There are a few cringe-inducing sentiments (let’s stay young forever! the leaves change color just for us!), but at heart DCFC is still a glass-is-half-empty kind of band. The most obvious example is “St. Peter’s Cathedral” with its atheist declaration “that when our hearts stop ticking / this is the end”. “Home Is a Fire” and “Codes and Keys” give the feeling of being trapped, with the former far out-pacing the latter in execution with piano and strings. Overall, the album gets more optimistic as it progresses, but words like happy, joy, and mirth aren’t rising to the top of the list of descriptors.
Codes and Keys also moves in a new direction musically, but keeps its roots firmly in indie territory. In general, the songs have more in common with the band’s earlier releases than their more recent output, but it’s augmented with a nice wash of grit and 90s-alt nostalgia. “You Are a Tourist” has a great melodic guitar line, and “Doors Unlocked and Open” surrounds you in the “ocean of sound”. The six-minute “Unobstructed Views” is solely instrumental for its first half, and while pretty the vocal effects and new-agey lyrics are off-putting (“there’s no eye in the sky / just our love”).
The stand-out track on Codes and Keys is “Underneath the Sycamore”. It jumps out as the front-runner partially because it has some sonic ties to Transatlanticism/Plans, but mostly because of the excellent instrumental break from 2:09-2:45. Angular guitars come slashing through, opening the way for slurring, bleating horns. At 2:24 comes a gut-punch of bass that makes you to stop as your breath catches and your heart sinks, only to be caught by the soar of fun-house strings. Then the bottom falls out and bells ascend to the chorus that pulls you back to the surface. It’s truly one of my favorite bits in the Death Cab oeuvre.
Most people probably aren’t going to have the same emotional connection to Codes and Keys as they did with the Death Cab for Cutie’s mid-career output. It’s not because Codes and Keys isn’t good, but because the album isn’t striving for that effect. It’s a rock album, not a diary entry. While heart-wrenching confessionals have been the band’s strong suit, trying to put out that kind of album when there’s no real-life inspiration to draw from would reek of inauthenticity. Do I not-so-secretly hope that Gibbard & Co. get bummed out again? Yes. Misery loves company and DCFC has been my emotional flat-mate for a decade now. Am I going to write off this album just because I don’t need to take to bed after listening? Absolutely not.
Codes and Keys dropped 05.31.11.
You can visit Death Cab for Cutie’s website here.