Death Cab for Cutie’s newest album isn’t a big departure from their usual sound, but it is a step in their evolution: the group has a new theme—adulthood.
Codes and Keys by Death Cab For Cutie. Atlantic.
By Yumi Araki
Upon first listen, indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie’s newest album, Codes and Keys, reverberates with the group’s familiar vintage-y, harpsichord-esque riffs accompanied by soft guitar strums and melancholy hums. The band’s 7th album contains 10 tracks filled with its usual lyrical candor, which taps into the awkward conjunction of painful emotions and ephemeral irritations. What elevates Codes and Keys is the maturity of its lyrics, which suggest that the band is trying to grow up, dealing with the trials and tribulations that come with the demands of time and family.
The album opens with a pulsing, low-fi, slow-metal tune, “Home is A Fire.” With a syncopating chorus that makes abstract references to things domestic, “Home” dramatizes front man Ben Gibbard’s inescapable transition from a young, jet-setting band man to a homebody, a husband with responsibilities. Guitar plucks accent household reverberations—Gibbard sings, with sincerity, “Home is a Fire / Burning Reminder / Of where we belong, Oh.”
So, despite tunes and lines that suggest the predictable resistance to settle down, Gibbard is coming to embrace his and the band’s move into adulthood. He told SPIN in October last year that “we’re all moving into a period of our lives where family is very important.” Having recently married actress and She & Him singer Zooey Deschanel, Gibbard and the rest of Death Cab (who are also now married or have children) even changed their recording strategy to accommodate the new duties in their schedules.
The album was recorded in four different cities with two weeks between each session for family time; some have criticized this choppy timetable for diluting the album’s consistency and overall impact. Larry Fitzmaurice from Pitchfork describes it as a “rudderless quality” that make the album feel distant. Tracks like “Some Boys” and “St. Peter’s Cathedral” definitely lack the group’s trademark intimacy, and the band’s signature, “big sound” quality seems to have less connection with the rhythmic and electronic experimentalism of Gibbard’s other band, Postal Service. But striking out in new formal directions may be a thing of the past, as Death Cab confronts a new stage of life through its lyrics.
Whereas the songs on their 2005 album Plans penetrate deep into Gibbard’s anguished soul, Codes and Keys adopts a uneasy lightheartedness though the use of simpler, less despairing lyrics. “Some Boys” ridicules what sounds like memories of the group’s irresponsible past as boys who “Don’t ask for permission, they lack inhibitions/No walls.” It’s not as hard-hitting as “Long Division” from their previous album Narrow Stairs, where a fading relationship is symbolized by the mathematics of division: “And they carried on like/Long division/…He had sworn not to be what he’s been before/To be a remain, remain, remain, remainder).” But Gibbard wanted to make an album that departs from the dark, self-indulgent tracks on Narrow Stairs, music that displays what he calls “a certain level of self-loathing that I’m a bit embarrassed about now.”
In a sense, Codes and Keys is Death Cab’s version of what the Beastie Boys accomplish in their new album How Sauce Committee Part Two. That record is also made up of a reflective medley of the rappers’ chaotic youth revisited. But perhaps the bridge of “You Are a Tourist” on Codes and Keys sums it up best: “And if you feel just like a tourist in the city you were born/It’s time to go/And define your destination with so many different places to call home.”
Death Cab for Cutie will visit Boston’s Bank of America Pavilion on August 1.