Death Cab for Cutie, Codes and Keys
By adam mcdonald
June 7, 2011
It would be a little unrealistic to expect our favorite bands to continue to make records that sound just like the one we fell in love with. So I realized that to enjoy Codes and Keys, the seventh studio album from Bellingham, Wash., indie kings Death Cab for Cutie, I’d have to realize it wasn’t going to dabble in the same sonic or lyrical territory as their 2003 masterpiece Transatlanticsm. It really wouldn’t make sense to expect Ben Gibbard to lend his distinctive tenor to lyrics about heartbreak, given the fact that he's now married to hipster dream girl Zooey Deschanel. He even moved to Los Angeles, a city he lyrically scorned in “Why You’d Want to Live Here” from 2001’s The Photo Album. As years pass, change is inevitable. That’s why it’s important to know the Death Cab that was featured on The O.C. what seems like 20 years ago isn’t the same band you’ll find on Codes and Keys. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Codes and Keys boasts strong production from guitarist Chris Walla, who has been at the helm for all of the band’s full-lengths. In an interview with NPR, Walla noted a difference in direction on this record, saying, "It just seemed like a good time to not make a really guitar-centric, guitar-focused record.”
The band succeeds in scaling back the guitar dominance with bouncy piano lines and lilting strings guiding the title track. Even though it barely exceeds three minutes, “Codes and Keys” seems very spacious, with Gibbard ruminating on the walls we build to protect ourselves from the world. “Monday Morning” is anchored by Nick Harmer's pulsing bass, as well as some lively synths.
Even with the lesser emphasis on guitar, Walla doesn’t sit this one out. The first single, “You Are a Tourist,” features one of the more memorable guitar hooks in Death Cab’s catalog. The lyrics seem to provide autobiographical evidence of the reason behind Gibbard’s move as he sings, “f you feel just like a tourist in the city you were born, then it’s time to go.
Unfortunately, the album stumbles on its most experimental track, “Unobstructed Views,” a six-minute, piano-heavy song that builds slowly in the vein of “I Will Possess Your Heart” but fails to deliver a sufficient payoff given the time you’ve invested.
With “St. Peter’s Cathedral” Gibbard revisits some lyrical themes he explored on “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” one of Death Cab’s most successful singles from 2005’s Plans. In it, he describes a grand cathedral, wondering whether those who enter its doors are really better off, and if there is such a thing as a life after this one. Sadly, he concludes “there’s nothing past this,” a refrain that is accompanied by airy “bah-dums” during the crescendo. While I’m not in agreement with Mr. Gibbard about the finality of our life on this earth, I commend his honesty in exploring such themes. It's also one of the more musically complete songs on the record, with an uplifting feel that greatly contrasts the lyrics.
Codes and Keys is a very good record, but it just misses being a great record. There is no doubt that Death Cab for Cutie have matured. This record is well-executed and perhaps more sure of itself than previous efforts, but mature doesn't have to mean boring. Codes and Keys gets better with each listen, especially the slow burn of “Doors Unlocked and Open,” which proves to be one of the record's strongest tracks about the fifth time through.
So Death Cab for Cutie is growing up—but don't think they've lost everything that made you love them. There is still a glimmer of youth in this band, evidenced when Gibbard sings on the short but sweet closer, “though winter's advancing, we'll stay young, go dancing.”