It’s been an interesting few years for Ben Gibbard. After plugging away for nearly a decade with his indie-pop outfit Death Cab For Cutie, he finally struck gold (well, technically platinum) with 2005’s Grammy-nominated Plans. Death Cab’s major-label debut didn’t differ much from their mostly brilliant back catalog, yet in some indier-than-thou circles, the album was hated on (basically for no longer having the Barsuk dog on the album artwork). While one can argue how the use of “indie rock” to describe a band whose last record alone shifted more than 1 million units is a bit absurd, that’s really beside the point. With Narrow Stairs, Death Cab have proven they will not be doomed to the early-morning talk-show circuit that has befallen so many others. (Paging the Fray…)
While Narrow Stairs is definitely a step away from Plans’ easily digestible adult-contemporary alternative, it will not come as a shock to any DCFC diehards. While the album does have a darker tone (the disc’s final two tracks, “Pity And Fear” and “The Ice Is Getting Thinner,” make you want to give Gibbard a comforting embrace), in typical Death Cab fashion, it’s conveyed through a variety of musical styles. (See the Turing Machine-esque “I Will Possess Your Heart,” an eight-minute groove with the creepiest lyrics since the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” and “You Can Do Better Than Me,” a quick burst of chamber-pop that is a spitting image of Harvey Danger’s more recent work.)
The real reason Narrow Stairs works so well is that despite the band’s more esoteric experiments (the slow dirge “Talking Bird” falls flat), they still contribute standalone pop gems. “Long Division,” “Cath…” and “Your New Twin Sized Bed,” could conceivably fit on any Death Cab album, as their sound is timeless and free of new influences. “Your New Twin Sized Bed” is especially a standout, with a midtempo, acoustic-driven melody underneath Gibbard’s melancholy account of a relationship winding down, with the song’s loved one throwing out the queen mattress the couple once shared. It’s not emo, yet it will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever had to divvy up possessions after a breakup.
Narrow Stairs will continue to propel Death Cab For Cutie into the hearts and minds of thousands. No matter how much Ben Gibbard ages, matures and experiences life, he will always have an almost supernatural talent to read the heartbroken masses’ minds. You can’t fault a guy for being the best in his trade, can you?