Perhaps I don't have a beating heart in my chest, but I never took to Death Cab for Cutie. I've always acknowledged the consistently excellent, if not occasionally hammy songwriting of Ben Gibbard, DCFC's alpha-male band leader, but his consistent topic of choice, the inner and outer workings of that mythical beast called love, always bored me when applied over the course of an album.
Part of this boredom comes from the perspective that Gibbard takes with the majority of his writing. He is always playing the part of scorned lover or forlorn observer, wistfully singing his flowery words of tribute to a woman who will never hear them. Surely the Death Cab faithful can point out a few instances where this is not the case, but generally, it's safe to say that Gibbard always plays the part of sad sack.
Well, thanks to a shift in perspective (if not topic), and some of the rockingest songs of the band's career, Narrow Stairs is the first DCFC album that has stuck to my ribs.
As stated above, Gibbard's overall songwriting focus hasn't changed on this album; he's still a man concerned with affairs of the heart. However, on Narrow Stairs, he is less a passive observer and more an active participant in the issues at hand. Take, for example, the excellent first single "I Will Posses Your Heart." Gibbard sings, with a confidence lacking on earlier releases, about making the lady in question his, no matter what it takes, promising that if she spends some time with him, he will eventually posses her heart. Control issues? Maybe, but it still stands as confident and motivated a statement as he's made in some time; at least the dude is taking charge for once.
Elsewhere on the album, Gibbard suggests that, gasp, he is growing sick of a relationship. "Talking Bird" is a nice little piece of metaphor that finds Gibbard singing about a bird that talks without saying anything, a pet that he has grown both bored and attached to. It's a little cheesy, but still downright fantastic to hear the man taking his one muse in different directions.
The other good thing about Narrow Stairs is that it rocks. In fact, it is the rockingest album that DCFC has made since their humble beginnings on albums like We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes and Something About Airplanes. "I Will Posses Your Heart" opens up with almost five minutes of bass and drum; easily the sexiest thing the band has ever done. "Long Division" is a mid-tempo number that rips the band from their usual plod and lets the guitars do more than the usual, whiny meanderings. And "No Sunlight" is the catchiest thing the band has done since "The Sound of Settling." Even the self-loathing lyrics of "You Can Do Better Than Me" can be forgiven when applied to such a pop-happy background.
Sure, there are the obligatory slow jaunts about the glory of love and the pain of loss, but those songs are the least interesting to me, as it sounds like the band is treading familial ground and running low on ideas. And regardless of how much the band turns up the amps, it doesn't look like DCFC is ever going to break out of the bedroom music genre that has made them favorites with high school lovers for years. Still, Narrow Stairs is a fine album that shows growth and maturity from a band that deals in an immature feeling. Think of it as the Death Cab album for people who don't like Death Cab.
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