Anyone even remotely acquainted with the indie-rock scene of the last decade is sure to be familiar with the band Death Cab for Cutie, the brainchild of Washington singer-songwriter-guitarist Ben Gibbard. Gibbard’s thoughtful lyrics, matched with his warm tenor, skyrocketed Death Cab into the public eye with its last outing, 2005’s “Plans.” Its music featured in hit TV shows and blockbuster movies such as “The O.C.” and “Wedding Crashers.”
With considerable commercial and critical success, it would make sense for the band not to stray too far from its tried-and-true formula. On “Narrow Stairs” however, Death Cab doesn’t rest on its laurels. Instead, “Narrow Stairs” is the sound of a band stretching out; the band does not necessarily depart from its classic sound, but rather furthers it by expanding its sonic palette. Gibbard & Co. incorporate elements of hard rock as well as a startling, though welcome, sense of dissonance throughout the album’s 11 songs. Guitarist Chris Walla has speculated that the album will “polarize” its audience due to its dark sound and heavy subject matter, capable of dividing, if not alienating, even devoted Death Cab fans. The band, however, believes in the quality of its work, and they have absolutely no reason not to. “Narrow Stairs” is an album to be excited about.
The album is a song cycle, which deals with the detrimental effects of broken relationships and the feelings of disillusionment and loneliness when those relationships end. “Cath…,” an instantly catchy reworking of Elvis Costello’s classic “Alison,” is the story of a woman unable to free herself from the confines of a loveless marriage. The seemingly abbreviated song title reflects the suffocating nature of her situation and loss of identity as a wife.
The next track, “Talking Bird,” is a further exploration of the theme of captivity in a relationship. The main character of “Cath…” finally breaks free from her marital binds, but she is so emotionally ravaged that she is unable to speak or think. Gently crooning over a wash of electric guitar and piano, Gibbard promises to love her despite her emotional baggage.
“I Will Possess Your Heart” is the first single off the album, and while it isn’t the strongest cut, it’s still quite good. Gibbard assumes the voice of the lovesick, somewhat voyeuristic suitor begging for the woman of his desire to “spend some time with him.” Gibbard deftly crafts the mesmerizing choral melody to coincide with the suitor’s aim to hypnotize his love interest into meeting with him and thereby secure her affections. His delivery is creepy yet strangely inviting, and the self-assuredness of the lyric reflects the mindset of a borderline obsessive stalker rather than a harmless, hopeless romantic. Though the first single is merely an above-average effort compared to some of the album’s better cuts, it packs enough punch to suggest the muscle of the rest of “Narrow Stairs” behind it.
Perhaps the most moving song on the album is “Grapevine Fires,” a stunning narrative that alludes to the wildfires in Southern California last October. As the drums and electric guitar play to the rhythm of undulating flames, Gibbard tells the story of a man sitting with his family on a hill watching civilization below burn to the ground. Amidst the despair, however, there is a moment of hope. The narrator admits that there isn’t anywhere he’d rather be “to watch it all burn away.” He doesn’t elegize what is lost; instead, he celebrates what is salvaged, that is, his loved ones. As with much of “Narrow Stairs,” though, hopeful sentiment soon dissipates as the song ends abruptly with the conflict left unresolved, firefighters working “in double-shifts” and the surrounding destruction only becoming worse.
Even in the last minutes of “Narrow Stairs,” despair prevails over hope. The album closes with the sparse ballad “The Ice Is Getting Thinner,” perhaps Gibbard’s most lucid expression of the inevitability of heartbreak in the wake of a relationship’s demise. Gibbard’s lyrical reference to springtime, usually associated with the blossoming of new love, takes on a decidedly different meaning, as the changing of the seasons actually leads to the disintegration of the relationship. The plaintive voice of Gibbard’s and mournful slide guitar only accentuate the inherent sorrow of the song.
Although it isn’t the sonic sunshine you’ll be blasting out of your car stereo this summer, “Narrow Stairs” is an artistic triumph. Instead of simply treading familiar territory, Death Cab has refined and expanded its sound with terrific results. Even if you’re a casual listener, “Narrow Stairs” will not disappoint. It’s as solid an album you will hear all year.