Death Cab For Cutie - Codes and Keys
Record Label: Atlantic Records
Release Date: May 31, 2011
The affection that has surrounded Death Cab For Cutie, the sweethearts of indie rock from the Pacific northwest, has been somewhat of a trap for the band (make a good record, but not with too much universal appeal); offer something new and fresh, but make sure you remember you wrote Transatlanticism. People seem to like the band because they have tapped into some unknown emotional resource. It’s a bit of a balancing act, holding onto the band’s indie charm while owning a major label contract and time on modern rock radio stations, not to mention the fact that the band released six full-lengths and three EPs since their induction.
This can be a good place to be as a band, finding yourself successfully straddling the line between hip and popular. It’s tenuous at the same time, especially for a band this far into its career and three years after their last release, Narrow Stairs, a record that garnered reviews somewhere in the “if you’re a Death Cab fan, you’ll find a reason to like it” range. So when the band announced it would be releasing Codes and Keys, there were flourishes of questions regarding which direction that band would take; the band responded with “Keyboards. Lot’s of keyboards.” Exactly what that meant was the question.
When lead vocalist Ben Gibbard released Give Up, the first and only record from his electronic side project The Postal Service in 2003, he did so with the use of glitchy drums and beats alongside dreaming keyboard elements. His voice was brittle and bent like a man either aching over heartbreak or swooning over newfound love.
Codes and Keys, on the other hand, winds up on the other end of the spectrum. Instead of the familiar, emotionally tinged songs about lovers and lies, the record seems to be a vessel for Gibbard’s existentialism. He sings “somewhere down, down, down in the ocean of sound, we’ll live in slow motion and be free” on “Doors Unlocked and Open,” which seems to be the best description of what the band is trying to accomplish: a sense of freedom in space and mood through layers of keyboards and vocal delays (“Home Is A Fire,” “Some Boys”). This primary task, however, is also the record’s Achilles heel. It sacrificed Gibbard's charming vocals and sense of melody to the sonic territories they are trying to explore.
Death Cab For Cutie has always been strongest in its pacing, finding groovy bass lines and drumbeats that compliment Gibbard’s melancholy, and although the second half of the record picks up speed (“Monday Morning,” “Portable Television”) the first half is too much of a slump to overcome.
But at times, the formula works, especially with songs like “Unobstructed Views.” Its pumping electronic keyboards and expansively distant vocals and synthesizer that sound like a Phil Collins b-side and the Arcade Fire-esque title track are developing elements that organically fit into the song’s atmosphere without getting lost somewhere in the mix.
The band’s dabbling in reinvention (if that’s what you want to call it) was inevitable, and maybe even welcomed. No band wants to make the same record twice and (arguably) neither do the fans. Many may have been hoping for some sort of return to form. Luckily, nowhere along the line has Death Cab For Cutie lost their sentimental value. The record’s lead single “You Are The Tourist” is pinned down by upbeat drums and a fuzzy bass-line, melodically turning back to songs in the ilk of “Cath” and “Crooked Teeth” and the Brandon Flowers-eque “Underneath The Sycamore." The band shows the eagerness it seems to be missing.
Overall, it's in how those communicated sentiments that the band lost its boyish charisma. With the band in its 30s now, the only thing left from boyhood is its memory, and it seems that there are bigger topics at hand they have yet to let go. Maybe it’s time that fans do the same. If you see Codes and Keys as an exploration of tonality and not songwriting, for the most part, it works. But if you don’t, you’re just left with echoes, and maybe that’s all the band wants you to hear.