On “Home Is a Fire”, the opening track of Death Cab for Cutie‘s seventh studio album, Codes and Keys, Ben Gibbard sings of “attempting a clean break, with nowhere left to go”–appropriately addressing the album’s place in the Seattle institution’s extended catalog. The first part of that line manifests itself clearly throughout Keys‘ 11 tracks, even at first listen, with visible straying from the melancholic themes, straightforward instrumentation, and emotional punch that characterized their career up to this point. The second half functions as an explanation of the first: The members of Death Cab for Cutie have reached an age of comfort, one of marriage and production careers, a maturity that is, for better or for worse, entirely incompatible with angst-ridden meditations on youth. There was truly “nowhere left to go” in making future albums revisiting ideas such as Transatlanticism without coming off as contrived and forced.
So where does that leave us? The intimacy of the days of We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes and The Photo Album may have passed, but that doesn’t mean Codes and Keys is inherently worthless. In fact, to the contrary, there is a lot to like here, as Codes and Keys is an album of exploration, both in sound and content. Its melodies are fantastically catchy, its message is a joyous acknowledgement of stability and optimism for the future. The band’s considerably diversified sonic palette is an exciting addition to the overall sound previously characterized by unforgettable guitar lines. Bouncing drums, playful vocal production, and swirling synths work together in compelling combinations, resulting in songs that reveal more intricacy and layering each time through. That being said, though, while Codes and Keys is a pleasing listen, it ultimately does lack the depth to make it really memorable, and some of the sacrifices made to create its poppy aesthetic are terribly unfortunate.
Notably among the neglected are Gibbard’s trademark contemplative, poetic lyrics. While, admittedly, the simple writing structures go well with the expansive, arena-esque nature of the songs, it’s a shame that the big sound of this album had to mean solely catchy hooks instead of the heartfelt lyricism that Gibbard has spoiled us with in the past. Not only for our sake, but for the longevity of the songs, which feel tired and unrewarding after only a few spins. It’s almost as if Gibbard is not yet quite sure how to verbalize so many happy and optimistic feelings, having spent so much time specializing in inner turmoil. Cliches such as “Nothing’s the same” (“Home Is a Fire”) and “We’re alive” (“Codes and Keys”) repeated ad nauseam throughout the album, however sincere they may be, come off as unoriginal and completely underwhelming. This idea is once more exemplified with the overt cheesiness in album closer “Stay Young, Go Dancing”, whose chorus of the same phrase sounds like the tagline for a tacky made-for-TV movie.
For its faults, though, there are definite high points on Codes and Keys. Among these is the midsection of the album, the trio of “Doors Unlocked and Open”, “You Are a Tourist”, and “Unobstructed Views”, which interestingly acts as a microcosm of Death Cab’s sonic past, present, and (apparent) future. Whereas “Unobstructed Views” and its extended piano introduction and powerful delivery of “Just our love, just our love” recall the simple beauty of “Transatlanticism”, “You Are a Tourist” epitomizes Death Cab’s new direction with its lush layering and irresistible guitar hook. “Doors Unlocked and Open” finds a fantastic middle ground, with its nostalgic guitar groove paired nicely with digitized vocals. The trio in rapid succession gives something to every kind of fan, assuaging fears about completely abandoning the past for odes to Zooey Deschanel (“Monday Morning”) and almost preachy tales about misbehaving, lustful boys (“Some Boys”). Additionally, “Underneath the Sycamore” is Death Cab-branded pop at its best, with Gibbard’s characteristic vocal quiver and narrative abilities making a triumphant appearance atop atmospheric chimes and guitar strums and a grooving bass line.
All in all, there is a lot to Codes and Keys that will inevitably be overlooked in its arena performances and radio singles, such as the subtle strings on “Home Is a Fire” and “St. Peter’s Cathedral” or how effective the reverberated vocals are at creating space. It’s an album with a deceptive simplicity, whose huge choruses tend to overshadow solid composition, and while it may not be what die-hard fans wanted, it’s a perfectly natural step into the years of adulthood. Codes and Keys won’t change your life or talk you through tough times, but it’s a nice soundtrack to a summer drive. And let’s be honest, with lines such as “Life is sweet, in the valley of the beast” on the closing track, it’s obvious that is what the album was intended for.