Death Cab for Cutie is a huge band for me. Their lyrics got me through all the obligatory high school breakups. My Senior Ditch Day was spent traveling to see the band play Red Rocks. Admittedly, I was late to the game on checking them out (2003’s Transatlanticism was my first experience with their work), but once I was on board, I never looked back. Needless to say, every few years when news of a new Death Cab album surfaces, I anticipate it with baited breath.
One of the first things apparent about Codes and Keys, their latest offering and third for major label Atlantic, is that it is nowhere near as immediately catchy as their last few efforts. The hooks are still there, but they’re not out in the open. The influence of 2008's Narrow Stairs’ eight-minute single “I Will Possess Your Heart” rears its head on several tracks here. “Doors Unlocked and Open” and “Unobstructed Views” lumber on for two and three minutes, respectively, before the vocals kick in, and piano is featured heavily on several tracks, moreso than guitar.
Instrumentation isn't the only thing that’s changed for Death Cab for Cutie, however. For the first time in the group’s recorded history, vocalist/guitarist Ben Gibbard is a happily married man, and this has affected his lyrical style, for better or worse. In the past, even their love songs sounded extremely depressing (see “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”), but this time around, some of them are simply sweet, “Monday Morning” being the best example of this. With his newfound happiness not exactly jiving with Death Cab’s style, he turns his attention outward on several tracks, singing about other characters, rather than himself.
By now everyone’s heard the album’s first single, “You Are a Tourist”. Its anthemic guitar line makes it sound akin to something from Narrow Stairs, and it’s a great single, if a little misleading about the rest of the album. As a whole, Codes and Keys is a huge curveball after its more rock-based predecessor.
One of the more interesting songs on the record is its opening track “Home Is a Fire”. Gibbard’s vocals combined with electronic drums make it the closest thing we've gotten to a Postal Service track since 2003. “Underneath the Sycamore” is a late-album highlight, reminiscent of 2005's Plans’ “Crooked Teeth”, and should make for a strong second single.
Death Cab for Cutie isn't content with repeating themselves. They've crafted an album that you couldn't mistake for anyone else, but they take enough risks to keep things interesting. Expanded instrumentation and a fresh lyrical perspective have helped cultivate a record that’s exciting and challenging. It’s not the best thing they've ever done, but it’s an album they should be proud of, and one I’ll keep coming back to.