The word “mature” is one that gets tossed around all too often today in labeling music. It’s almost to the point where the word has lost its meaning and become simply a term for when a band breaks expectations. It doesn’t have to be good – just artistic – which suddenly makes it “mature.” While many critics have been praising Narrow Stairs as Death Cab for Cutie’s most “mature” effort to date, in reality it’s merely a natural progression for the band.
Narrow Stairs is Death Cab’s sixth proper record, yet it isn’t any more mature than their previous two, 2005’s mainstream breakthrough Plans and 2003’s masterpiece Transatlanticism. While the mood might be darker and the music less commercially viable, it still contains all the elements fans have come to love and expect – indie-pop melodies, reflective lyrics and Ben Gibbard’s distinctive voice.
The record begins with “Bixby Canyon Bridge” in typical Death Cab fashion, with Gibbard singing over softly atmospheric guitars. However, this lasts for less than two minutes before crunchy distortion kicks in, the kind which hasn’t been heard since the band’s days on Barsuk Records. The eight-minute-plus single “I Will Possess Your Heart” continues the departure from its typical sound. Backed by a methodical bass riff from Nick Harmer, who is stellar throughout the album, the track finds Death Cab exploring its artsy, improvisational side. Is the elaborate intro justified? Not really, but it still grooves and sounds cool.
Meanwhile, “No Sunlight” and “Long Division” are reminiscent of Death Cab’s catchiest material. The upbeat guitars and repetitious choruses easily get stuck in your head, a stark contrast to the somber lyrics. The same is true of the standout song “Cath…,” a tale of a woman resigned to an ill-fated marriage. It’s an example of classic Death Cab and would fit right at home on Transatlanticism.
Lyrically, Gibbard continues to explore lost love and its repercussions, but this time with a slightly darker twist less inclined towards sunny optimism. None is more telling than the aforementioned “I Will Possess Your Heart,” which follows a man who is seemingly stalking the woman he desires and demanding her attention. On other tracks he tells stories and uses extended metaphors – a caged bird, a bed, wildfires, melting ice – trying to make sense of life and the fragility of love.
Gibbard recently offered an intriguing glimpse into his thought process in the May issue of Paste Magazine. In an essay on the meaning of life, he talked about why he fails at relationships and concluded the most important thing for him is music – his one and only constant. Taken in the context of Narrow Stairs, it’s a revealing self-portrait that readily stands out.
In the end, Narrow Stairs is the work of a band comfortable in its own skin yet unafraid to grow. While it never quite reaches the heights of Transatlanticism, it is an effective about-face from the mellow, piano-driven Plans. As with all of Death Cab’s releases, repeated spins are a must to fully appreciate and grasp its breadth and, once it has sunk in, Narrow Stairs neatly fits into the band’s expanding repertoire. “Mature” or not, you can’t ask for much more than that.