Benjamin Gibbard is an intense guy whose philosophy of life is couched in the knowledge that all of this wonderful confusion will soon enough be silenced by the unerring aim of death. But before we get there let’s fall madly in love, have our hearts crushed, debate repeating the process, and ponder the finer points of existence. While were at it let’s push the limits of our musical persona. That seems to be at the core of what’s happening on Narrow Stairs.
In 2004 Death Cab was a favorite of the indie-rock scene with a long term relationship with the small but influential Barsuk label. That year the band made the leap to the major leagues by signing with Atlantic Records. The band’s first release for the big guys was Plans an album that sold well, received critical acclaim and lots of airplay. It also built expectations for the band’s commercial viability. But Gibbard expressed concern about how the album was pieced together “like a construction project” with band members recording their parts bit by bit.
Gibbard, who prefers to write on piano and computer, reported that Narrow Stairs is built upon songs composed on guitar. Unlike their last record these songs were created with all four band members present in the studio each offering input on the entire project and all of them playing like a band on the verge. This album is a guts and hearts effort that flows directly from the band to tape with no overdubbing or synthetic barriers to block the road. On the opening track, “Bixby Canyon,” guitars take center stage but compete with distortion and dark, dire lyrics. The second track, “I Will Possess Your Heart,” is a mesmerizing psychedelic 8 minute jam – and it is the first single from the record (Alka-Seltzer all around for the Atlantic Executives). It’s a wonderfully literate yet creepy take on obsession that competes with Sting’s “Every Breath You Take.”
Things lighten up a bit for the 2 plus minutes of “No Sunshine” a pop-perfect nugget that begins a run of songs that sound more like the nice band from the last record with a few new twists like that really cool organ that pumps through “You Can Do Better Than Me.” Poppy melodies, swirling guitars, snap drumming, thumping bass and Gibbard’s sweet reedy vocals highlight this part of the disc. Death Cab saves some of their best stuff for the wrap up. “Pity and Fear” is propelled by densely structured guitars and tabla beats and an ending so abrupt you might think the band ran into a semi. “The Ice Is Getting Thinner” is reminiscent of Gibbard’s earlier songs about dead relationships.
On a recent blog Gibbard wrote about discovering the music of Popul Vuh, a 1970’s era German band who is considered forerunners of ambient rock and were regular contributors to the dark films of Werner Herzog. Perhaps it is their influence that inspires the dark beauty of Death Cab For Cuties’ edgy Narrow Stairs.
WYEP celebrates the very best of 2008 during December by revisiting albums from our top 10 of the year. Pick up your copy of Death Cab For Cutie's Narrow Stairs by going to wyep.org/store.