Codes and Keys by Death Cab for Cutie (Atlantic Records and Barsuk Records, 2011. 45 minutes)

Formed in Bellingham, Washington under the shadow of Western Washington University, Death Cab for Cutie is Ben Gibbard (vocals, guitar, piano), Chris Walla (guitars, production, keyboards), Nick Harmer (bass), and Jason McGerr (drums). The band signed to Barsuk Records off the strength of an early demo written primarily by Ben Gibbard. On Barsuk, Death Cab released four albums to much local and critical acclaim. Transatlanticism – perhaps the most famous release from their time on the Barsuk label – launched Death Cab as an international act. In 2004, Death Cab signed a worldwide deal with Atlantic Records and soon after released Plans, an album that was critically well-received, Grammy nominated, and certified platinum. The band’s next album, Narrow Stairs, became the band’s first album to reach the top of the Billboard charts. Recently, Death Cab released Codes and Keys landing 3rd on the Billboard Charts.

An Excursus on Stadium Rock

Warranted or not, the general expectation from a stadium-sized rock concert is energetic and danceable music. There are night and day differences between a U2 and Sarah McLachlan show. For U2, the waterfall of guitar echoes fills the stadium and supplies an infectious energy. For Sarah, her muted tones and soft, angelic voice fit better in a smaller setting.
For most rock bands, outgrowing small- and medium-sized clubs requires a reworked sound. For some bands (Muse comes to mind), the transition is remarkably easy. Other bands, however, must shift to a larger sound.

Coldplay: An Illustration

To illustrate, Coldplay offers a modern example of this shift. Outside of the single, “Yellow,” Coldplay’s first record is well-suited as background music at a small club. With intimate instrumentation and lyric-based melodies, Parachutes is a soft record.
As Coldplay grew into a worldwide phenomenon, the band’s sound grew. Recent records X&Y and Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends display a new Coldplay with densely textured instrumentation and grand sonic explorations. In short, these two records translate well in a stadium-sized concert.
The point of this short excursus is to liken Death Cab for Cutie’s current form of inconsistency to its lack of reformed sound as the band grows.

A Band Caught between Large and Small

Death Cab for Cutie made its name as a small club staple in Bellingham and Seattle. With slightly overdriven guitars, simple rhythms, and scholarly lyrics, Death Cab is tailor made for the hipster bar scene.
With success, the band has outgrown its habitat and Codes and Keys illustrates the band’s struggle with remaining true to its classic sound while trying to write big for large shows.
On the one hand, Codes and Keys finds Death Cab for Cutie remaining in similar musical textures to its origins. Chris Walla and Ben Gibbard mostly play an arpeggiated guitar with minimal strumming. Additionally, well-written lyrics remain a core strength in the band.
On the other hand, Codes and Keys finds Death Cab attempting to create a bigger sound. The production on the drums is beefy and loud. Additionally, the first single, “You Are a Tourist” finds a guitar riff drowning in high gain, as if the band knew loud riffage is a recipe for stadium rock.
At the end of the day, Death Cab is caught between who the band was and who they wish to be.

Marriage Makes a Man Happy

Lyrically, Ben Gibbard trades lugubrious stylings for sappy love songs. Clearly influenced by his marriage to indie starling, Zooey Deschanel, Gibbard sings in “Monday Morning,”

“She may be young but she only likes old things / And modern music it ain’t to her tastes / She loves the natural light / Captured in black and white.”

Despite Gibbard’s refusal to write from depths of sorrow, the lyrics in Codes and Keys are not 100 percent sap. In the title track, Gibbard opines,

“But the codes and keys / They can’t protect you from the pangs of jealousy / And when you scream / Love you seem / Like a child throwing stones at the sky / But when they fall back to earth / As minor chords of major works / In separate rooms, a single life / We are one, we are alive!”

With a keen sense of simile and illustrative words, Gibbard’s lyrics still anchor the band.
Sadly, Codes and Keys represents another effort in a transitional period for Death Cab for Cutie. No longer a band confined to small clubs, the band’s intimate indie rock does not translate well to arena shows. While the band recognizes the need for change, they have yet to successfully implement it in the studio. Thus, if you like the sound of pre-major label Death Cab, I think this album will not grace your “best of” list. If you are a fan of stadium rock, I doubt this record will resonate. However, if you are a fan of good lyrics, you might enjoy this record.

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