on 13 May 2008
I suppose it's only right to start this review of "Narrow Stairs" by mentioning all the hype that surrounded the album's supposed departure from Death Cab For Cutie's usual sound and style. The album was said by the band to be "a really polarising record", and something of a "curve ball". Hell, they even mentioned being influenced by heavy metal and synth-punk bands, as well as recording using a live-in-the-studio approach, so you can't blame the fans for expecting something completely different from the Death Cab we all know and love. So, the question now is, does "Narrow Stairs" live up to this promise?
Well actually, it doesn't really. The band does experiment a little more than usual, it's true, like with the hypnotic 8-minute lead single "I Will Possess Your Heart", or the Beach Boys-style production on the short but sweet "You Can Do Better Than Me", or even the India tablas in the sinister rocker "Pity and Fear". And yes, they do rock out harder than they have done in a few years on the aforementioned track, as well as during parts of the superb opener "Bixby Canyon Bridge" and the excellent "Long Division". But looking at the album as a whole, I can't help thinking that they have been exaggerating a little, for it's certainly not the major departure that it could have been.
But it's important to stress that I don't mean that in a bad way. Far from it, in fact. After all, Death Cab For Cutie are an amazing band, and sticking with their signature sound can do them no harm at all. In my opinion, the modest level of experimentation on this record was the perfect amount....enough to give this album it's own distinct identity in the band's impressive back catalogue (and to make it a much livelier affair than their rather ballad-heavy previous album, "Plans"), but not so much as to completely lose their identity (and possibly a lot of fans in the process).
But anyway, the most important thing to know about "Narrow Stairs" is, of course, whether the songs are any good....and, unsurprisingly, they are indeed. There's not really a bad track in sight, in fact, and a few of them may even rank up there with the best of Death Cab's output. Ben Gibbard's lyrics are as brilliantly refined as ever, if a little more straightforward and easy to interpret than on past records. And is it just me, or are Death Cab possibly the greatest in the world when it comes to sequencing an album? They always seem to get the flow just perfect, and this record is no exception.
We kick off with a stand-out track, "Bixby Canyon Bridge", as Gibbard's angelic voice floats over an ethereal backing, singing lyrics that aren't so much inspired by Jack Kerouac as they are about being inspired by Jack Kerouac. After a couple of minutes, the song jumps up a notch, eventually building to a chaotic climax as Gibbard's voice echoes out again into nothingness. "I Will Possess Your Heart" then fades in to begin it's lengthy stay.....possibly too lengthy, I must admit. I admire the band's chutzpah for making an 8 minute song and then releasing it as the lead single, but it doesn't really lend itself to too many repeated listens. The instrumental phrases are lovely, but Gibbard's chorus is a just a little too repetitive (though that does seem appropriate for conveying the insistence of the song's obsessive lyrics, which border on the stalker-ish).
"No Sunlight" provides some welcome relief, with it's brevity and upbeat pop melodies, which contrast with the song's death-of-optimism lyrical theme. This leads into "Cath...", another stand-out track, and one which seems destined to become a Death Cab classic. Featuring heart-wrenching narrative lyrics, a great melody, and some inventive drumming from the always excellent Jason McGerr, this is one you'll almost certainly want to go back to.
"Talking Bird" is a much slower affair, with a sparse production and yet more emotive lyrics from Gibbard. "You Can Do Better With Me" seems almost like a brief interlude, being under 2 minutes in length and featuring a very atypical arrangement that's very reminiscent of "Pet Sounds"-era Beach Boys. The song seques seamlessly into the brilliant "Grapevine Fires", which features probably Gibbard's best lyrics on the whole album. The song grooves slowly along on an insistent drumbeat and mellow electric piano chords, complete with some choral-style backing vocals.
There's another irresistable groove to be found on "Your New Twin Sized Bed", with plenty of interplay between the guitars and Nick Harmer's inventive bass lines. Gibbard's lyrics are once again unusual but extremely touching, and the melody is lovely and poignant too. The hard rocking "Long Division" follows, featuring sinister verses leading to big sing-along choruses (with some great high harmony vocals from guitarist-producer Chris Walla). This one should be stuck in your head for days.
"Pity and Fear" is up next....and it's not one of the album's best tracks, despite it's unusual tabla intro and crashing outro jam. Closing track "The Ice Is Getting Thinner" is also a little disappointing.....maybe I was too used to hearing the live piano version of this song that Ben Gibbard played live a while ago, but it definitely sounded better that way. On the album version, the piano is switched for a clean electric guitar, which would be fine, except the chords get changed around a bit so that the vocal melody seems to contrast rather awkwardly with the backing (though it comes together better in the middle section). The vocal melody is nice, as are the lyrics, but the final song is a little duller than it should have been.
All in all, there's definitely enough great tracks on "Narrow Stairs" to make it a worthwhile purchase. Even the couple of lesser tracks are still worth listening to, and certainly don't ruin the album as a whole. Long time fans of the band won't be disappointed, and hopefully they'll win a lot of new ones as well. The critics seem to be universally pleased with the album too, so it looks like Death Cab are on to a winner with this one.
As for me, it doesn't beat "Transatlanticism", but then I imagine no album they make ever will. However, it's definitely a contender for the 2nd place position, and that's high praise indeed. I'd say "Narrow Stairs" was as good an album as I could have hoped for from Death Cab For Cutie, and I'd urge everyone to give it a listen.