It seems like I’ll never escape the fact that Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard is happily married to doe-eyed indie princess, Zooey Deschanel. This indie marriage made in heaven seems to have had an effect on Gibbard’s songwriting as well, most notably on Death Cab For Cutie’s seventh studio album, Codes and Keys, which has a jollier air than the band’s previous endeavors.
Codes and Keys is less guitar-focused and proves to be Death Cab’s most experimental work yet. The album — mixed by Alan Moulder, who has also worked with the likes of Depeche Mode, My Bloody Valentine and Yeah Yeah Yeahs — signals an all-around maturity both in production and content that was only hinted at in Narrow Stairs. Not only is Gibbard’s voice the strongest it has ever been (at least as strong as a boyish croon can get), the lyrical content also reveals a shift from blatant misery to a kind of optimistic self-reflection.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Guitarist and keyboardist Chris Walla not only worked as a producer but also contributed to much of the solid composition in the tracks.
The album’s opener, “Home Is a Fire,” kicks off the album with a frantic drum kit reined in by Gibbard’s soft croon. It subtly burgeons but denies any true climax while Gibbard repeats “We will awake / Only to find / Nothing’s the same.” After listening to the album in its entirety, this mantra becomes increasingly obvious for die-hard Death Cab fans.
The title track, “Codes and Keys,” is a gorgeously layered work of orchestral composition swelling above a percussive pomp and a jaunty keyboard. The lyrics begin with a touch of hopelessness — “We won’t get far / Flying in circles inside a jar / Because the air we breathe / Is thinning with the words that we speak” — but by the end, Gibbard defiantly cries, “We are alive.” The entire album is filled with teetering emotions.
Traces of Narrow Stairs come through with “Doors Unlocked and Open,” which toys with some progressive rock elements. It opens with a toe-tapping, bass-propelled introduction reminiscent of “I Will Possess Your Heart,” though it is certainly not as lengthy or creepy; rather it focuses on living freely somewhere in “gilded” California.
As the album progresses, so does the optimism. Halfway through the album, “Unobstructed Views” begins with gentle, childlike piano, that continues up until the 3-minute mark, when Gibbard finally sweetly sings about a love that defies all outside influences. The track sets up the upward emotional projectile the latter part of the album takes on.
Gibbard’s lyrical penchant for loneliness slips through in “Underneath the Sycamore,” but this time two loves are lonely together: “And now we are under the same sun / Feel it through the leaves / Let it heal us.” For once, things seem to work out for Gibbard’s characters.
The penultimate track, “St. Peter’s Cathedral,” explores deeper themes such as religion and death. However, it does not treat death in the same, depressing way Plans did. There is actually a tinge of smug positivity. Musically, the track layers harmonies and vocalizations over a softly explosive synthesizer, growing in small bursts and finally ending on a major chord.
The final track has the most unexpected title coming from Death Cab For Cutie — “Stay Young, Go Dancing.” Being the shortest track on the album, it is also the most lighthearted. A surge of happiness comes through Gibbard’s voice as he sings, “’Cause when she sings I hear a symphony /And I’m swallowed in sound as it echoes through me /I’m renewed, oh how I feel alive’ and though autumn’s advancing / We’ll stay young, go dancing.” Subtle undulating strings come in, bolstering a bright piano, ultimately creating spry melody.
Death Cab For Cutie certainly underwent a change while creating this album. Simply put, it’s different. Death Cab has undeniably grown as a band and, with Codes and Keys, they prove that by using sounds and textures not present before in their previous albums. Although it can hardly be classified as “deep,” it holds merit in its experimentation and catchiness. If you’re looking for an album to cry with, go back to Plans because Codes and Keys is infused with an overwhelming sense of renewal and healing.