Music Review: Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs (2008)

Going into Narrow Stairs, I knew I was going to have to make a big effort not to let myself be biased by my affections for Death Cab. I wanted this album to be great to the point that I was afraid I might convince myself it was great even if it was in actuality sub par.

So when the album finally released and I listened to it and found myself convinced that it was great, I put a good deal of effort into analyzing it as objectively as I could, scrutinizing its finer points, and generally trying to pinpoint any faults that may have been initially obscured by my preconceived interest.

However, I soon realized that looking at Narrow Stairs with an objective eye doesn’t make any sense. This isn’t an album that you can mathematically critique; this is an album that you lay down to, close your eyes to, and let it do to your heart what it will. Yes, there are a few criticisms to be made here and there, and no, this is not the strongest collection of songs Death Cab has ever put together. But if you can learn to accept the mood change that Death Cab offers, it will become their most subtly emotional release yet.

At first, it’s somewhat jarring listening to some of the stylistic routes Death Cab has chosen to go as opposed to places they’ve gone in previous efforts. Everything flows smoother and sweeter, and yet manages to wink at the listener, saying, “You know it’s not really all this nice.” Death Cab has always had a knack for juxtaposing light and dark, and here they refined that ability.

Ben Gibbard’s vocals go a long way towards helping strengthen this juxtaposition with lines such as “The firemen worked in double shifts with prayers for rain n their lips, and they knew it was only a matter of time,” and “As the flashbulbs burst, she holds a smile like someone would hold a crying child.” In some songs, such as I Will Possess Your Heart, purpose may seem to be something as harmless as a love song, and only later does it hit that a stalker is in fact being described. On the whole, Narrow Stairs is lyrically on par with any of Gibbard’s past works.

Musically, this is Death Cab’s most varied work, but still manages to sound like a complete whole. From some of the heaviest guitars we’ve heard out of Death Cab on Bixby Canyon Bridge to the simple acoustic of Talking Bird and The Ice Is Getting Thinner, Gibbard and Co. express no shyness in exploring their range. Hits of gorgeously sparse piano on I Will Possess Your Heart, an almost tribal sounding beat on Pity and Fear, soothingly atmospheric background vocals on Grapevine Fires and much more are all to be found here. Despite this, everything for the most part flows together properly. The theme is consistently melancholy, perked up by poppier moments such as on No Sunshine (which sounds directly contrary to its name), and creates a very cohesive and emotionally involving atmosphere.

There are a few obstacles that keep Death Cab from reaching the near-perfection of Transatlantacism. There are a few awkward transitions, namely after Cath… and after the unfortunate sudden ending of Pity and Fear. In the second half however, the transitions are almost a bit too smooth, meaning that if you’re not paying attention, you may not even realize that song has ended. In addition, the second half of the album isn’t quite as varied as the first, creating a slightly unbalanced feel between the two halves. However, none of these mistakes are major concerns; this album remains excellent in spite, and occasionally because of them.

I came into Narrow Stairs with the intention of being as objective, informed, and cold-hearted of a critic as possible. But once again, whether by some trick or by one of the best albums of the year, I came out of Death Cab’s latest more soft-hearted than ever.

Final Score: 8.7/10

Highlights: Bixby Canyon Bridge, I Will Possess Your Heart, Cath…, Grapevine Fires

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