Friday, December 9, 2011

Narrow Stairs - Death Cab for Cutie

Narrow Stairs
Death Cab For Cutie
Atlantic/Barsuk  BARK75

I saw Death Cab twice this summer on the “Codes and Keys” tour and I’d go see them again tomorrow if I could.  They really put on a great show.  I can’t believe how big they’ve become.  I’ve been a fan since their second album “We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes” but back in those days I didn't think that they’d ever be more than a cult band.  I never would have predicted that big-time commercial radio stations like KROQ would be playing their singles or that they’d be headlining large venues.  The first clue I was wrong was when Ben Gibbard had all that success with the Postal Service.  I thought that would be the end of Death Cab and that Gibbard would go solo.  I was wrong about that too.  Instead Death Cab became one of the biggest bands in alternative rock and kudos to them for achieving success without sacrificing their original sound or their integrity.  The band that made “Codes and Keys” is easily recognizable as the band that made “Something About Airplanes.”  I love all their albums but my favorite is “Narrow Stairs” although it is arguably their darkest record.  The album begins with “Bixby Canyon Bridge” which is a spectacular bridge on Highway 1 in Big Sur, California.  That stretch of road  is one of my favorite drives and if you ever find yourself out this way I highly recommend it (unless you get easily carsick.)  In the song Gibbard makes a pilgrimage to the spot unsuccessfully seeking inspiration from Jack Kerouac who lived there briefly and wrote about it in his novel “Big Sur.”  Gibbard mentions feeling confused and uneasy about the direction his life has taken but finds no answers in the creek at the bottom of the bridge.  The song starts like a slow, ethereal ballad but gradually builds in intensity and develops into a noisy rockfest, the Death Cab version of a rave-up.  Death Cab opened up their shows this summer with the mesmerizing “I Will Possess Your Heart.”  The song opens slowly with the drone of a synthesizer and a hypnotic bass riff.  After a few bars, other instruments kick in and a driving instrumental passage ensues lasting over four minutes before Gibbard takes the mike.  The song starts out sounding like a love song, but as it progresses the protagonist is revealed to be a creepy stalker.  I think it is one of the band’s strongest songs.  “No Sunlight” sounds poppy and upbeat until you listen to the words and hear the narrator losing his youthful idealism and being enveloped by darkness.  I find the contrast between the words and music very striking.  It segues directly into “Cath...” which is an amazing set of lyrics depicting a doomed wedding.  Gibbard’s description of the contrast between the image of the bride and the reality of her situation is devastating.  With the band pounding away in the background , this is one of the most powerful songs on the record.  “Talking Bird” is a slow ballad with the band droning away beneath lyrics  that use a caged bird as a metaphor for a relationship.  Side two opens with “You Can Do Better Than Me” which describes someone in an unsatisfying relationship who stays in the relationship because they could never find a better partner.  Again the band pairs a depressing set of lyrics against cheerful, even wistful sounding music.  Gibbard once wrote one of the most devastating put-downs of Los Angeles ever in “Why You’d Want To Live Here” (on “The Photo Album”) but when I first heard “Grapevine Fires” I realized that Gibbard had become a genuine Angelino.  His description of the wildfires that periodically plague Southern California features such vivid and evocative imagery that I can practically smell the smoke in the air when I listen to it.  It is set to a haunting and hypnotic melody that stays with me for days after I listen to this album.  It is one of the best songs on the album.  It is followed by “Your New Twin Sized Bed” which is another song that matches cheerful, upbeat music to depressing lyrics.  In this case the subject of the song has thrown out their queen sized mattress and replaced it with a twin mattress because they’ve given up on ever being in a relationship.  “Long Division” is the catchiest and poppiest song on the album so naturally it is paired with lyrics depicting the end of a relationship.  It uses mathematics for the symbolism of the one who gets dumped by their partner, being the remainder like in long division.  It is another terrific song, but oh so bleak, although it is like sunshine pop compared to “Pity and Fear.”  The song describes a one night stand and the alienation between people with very powerful imagery.  The song starts out sounding like an Indian raga with droning instruments and tabla-like percussion but soon escalates into a straight ahead rocker that becomes extremely loud and powerful before ending abruptly in the middle of a riff.  The cacophonous finish of “Pity and Fear” is followed by the quietest song on the album, “The Ice Is Getting Thinner.”  Gibbard chooses melting ice as his metaphor this time as he examines the deterioration of yet another relationship.  It is a gloomy, but beautiful song that ends this dark album on an appropriately melancholy note.  This is such an unhappy record with such a pessimistic view of human relationships that it is almost mind-boggling that Gibbard would end up getting engaged to a movie star little more than half a year after this album was released.  It would have seemed more likely that he would have withdrawn into a monastery instead.  Despite the depressing nature of the lyrics, this isn’t a difficult record to listen to.  The music is mostly engaging and accessible and the lyrics are expressed with clever metaphors and poetic language, it is not at all like some emo mope-fest.  I imagine if you were in a bad relationship or had recently suffered a broken heart, it might strike a little too close to home, but I know when I’m feeling down, I generally find comfort in a kindred spirit rather than some happy optimist type.  Recommended for Morrissey fans who wish he wasn't such a drama queen. 

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