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Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys

on May 27, 2011, 8:00am
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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. –Caitlin Meyer


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Laura Eve
June 8, 2011 at 7:14 pm

I love the new album. I disagree with your thoughts on the depth. There is still depth it’s just a new kind. Gibbard has an incredible future in store, he has reached a new point in life so it’s expected for his music to mature and change with him. The lyrics are a bit more simpler in someways i agree, but i think sometimes the simple way is the most powerful. And a simple life can also be the most desirable. The optimism in this album has made me fall in love with DCFC again. I was over the depressing stuff. I love this. I don’t know why but the sound to this album kinda of makes me think of a mix of Transatlanticism and Narrow Stairs, it’s like they had a baby. Not with the lyrics though, just the sound. And I love how distinct each of DCFC’s album is. You wouldn’t expect an artist to paint the same picture over, and over again. And you can’t expect that out of musicians. If its been done, leave it and move on, that’s what they’re doing.

June 3, 2011 at 4:16 pm

I enjoyed your review, and happen to agree with most of it.

I just got done writing a review of my own, and I would love to hear your thoughts!

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May 28, 2011 at 10:23 pm

While I agree with your overall disagreement, saying it’s the best since plans is just saying that it’s better than Narrow Stairs – which imo isn’t saying a lot.

May 27, 2011 at 9:21 pm

It sounds like you’re just expecting them to rate an album based on the artist, not the album.  I’m sure Transatlanticism would have gotten 5 stars, but they’re saying this album deserved 3 stars.  Kanye’s MBDTF deserved 5 stars, not all of his albums. 

May 27, 2011 at 4:27 pm

what handbanana said.

death cab is a band I want to move forward. Honestly what song besides the lead single will get any airtime whatsoever? This isn’t anything like only by the night. Not even a little. This album is low key and just so…. forgettable. I wanted (and expected) bigger. Hopefully it’ll grow on me

May 27, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Death Cab could easily move into the mainstream big time with this album, and leave the indie world behind for good. Coming on the heels of their Chronicle Book, where there is a copy of a list of things they wanted from a record deal, this has the feel of a band looking for serious airplay on top 40 radio, opening slots on the next Kings of Leon tour, and arena headlining slots. Thanks guys, its been a pleasure!

May 28, 2011 at 10:38 pm

You’re echoing a lot of what ghost said below, and a lot of what I said to them applies here too.  The band is already a big mainstream band, they headline tours, and there are very few bands they could open for on tour without it being weird or a co-headline spot.  Almost nothing on this record feels like traditional top 40, so if they get a lot of airplay, it’s a testament to the quality of the songs, not their ability to write radio friendly unit shifters.

May 27, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Death Cab is weak in general, all the time.

ghost that never lies…
May 27, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Codes and Keys is to KOL’s Only By the Night…. It’s geared for mass consumption and radio friendly airplay…. They are “trying to make it big”.  I don’t blame them, I think they could be one of the next group of bands that becomes a national headliner at fests…..

Very catchy album with tons of chorus hooks.  I find myself singing their choruses as I walk through the hallways of my work.

Not their best, but definitely their most accessible

May 27, 2011 at 1:44 pm

I understand that DCFC is not a “huge act”, but they have been headlining major festivals for years now, including Sasquatch this year.  I really don’t see them getting much bigger than they are now.  Some people may like their radio songs, as they did with “Cath”, but I think most radio listeners won’t go past that.  Their sound doesn’t translate to the masses as much as a KOL album may.  Not to mention, DCFC make 1000x better music than KOL. 

May 27, 2011 at 2:24 pm

I’d have to disagree to some extent with ghost that never lies… and side Dan. I think Plans was by far their most accessible album to date (“Soul Meets Body” was a hit, “I’ll Follow You Into the Dark” was nominated for a Grammy, “Crooked Teeth” was a semi-hit and the songs there overall were fashioned toward radio play being it their major label debut.) Based on interviews with the band and the slump that was Narrow Stairs, I fully expected Codes and Keys to be an even bigger sounding album than anything. It’s not, based on my listens. It sounds more upbeat than Narrow Stairs, has a few singles, but mass consumption? Probably not. It’s too low-key on the deep cuts. This should have been the point for them to graduate from mid-large tier act to arena rockers, but nothing here indicates there’s a song to make them that big. I don’t think they want to be much bigger than they are now.

May 28, 2011 at 10:36 pm

 Gotta disagree, ghost.  If there was an album that was for radio airplay, it had to be Plans.  Soul Meets Body, Crooked Teeth, and of course the song that Death Cab can’t sing (because the crowd does it for them), Follow You Into the Dark all got serious airplay.  Out in Seattle, so did Marching Bands (and “your love is gonna drown” is hard to get out of your head once it gets in there).  Coming after signing to a major label, it was obviously well crafted to appeal to the masses…without not being DCFC.  As for the rest..I believe DCFC sold out Key Arena in Dec 06 (or at least whatever of it they had available to sell), they’re headlining Sasquatch this year, theyve headlined smaller festivals quite a bit…opening for Kings of Leon would be a step down for them right now (and I say this as a big KoL fan)


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