Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Is Narrow Stairs the Saddest Death Cab for Cutie Album?

on August 13, 2018, 2:00am

Ben Gibbard’s voice always makes me cry. I still remember hearing it for the first time in middle school. Bored in a suburban Best Buy while my mom searched for a new computer mouse, I scoured their CD rack before picking up a copy of We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes. Back home, I flipped through the lyric booklet and suddenly found myself crying to “405”, confused as to how Gibbard’s mundane and downtrodden voice could make an uptempo song sad. It was a fitting introduction to Death Cab for Cutie, the Washington indie rock band known for capturing teenage angst in the aughts and catapulting the emotional side of indie rock. Gibbard didn’t even sound depressed when he sang. He just sounded hopeless, and the exhaust of feeling such had squashed any need for melodramatic delivery.

It happened again, but even faster, with the next Death Cab for Cutie record I heard. While on vacation with my family that same summer, I bought Transatlanticism, their newest album at the time, and had to wait until we were back at the hotel room to listen. I dug up an outdated CD player from the bottom drawer of the dresser and leaned against its cheap wood, listening through headphones, while my family fell asleep one by one. Gibbard’s voice carries a deep-seeded sense of regret on that record. His falsettos on “A Lack of Color” in particular shook me so deeply that I didn’t realize that I was, at age 12, crying about the futility of porn magazines. Looking back, the comparatively archaic nature of technology and sterile climate of a hotel room adds an extra layer of comedic desperation to the scenarios, but the response was real. Gibbard’s voice carries an innately sad tone that hits the heart in a relatable way, even if the stories don’t.

That Pavlovian response is what fascinates me about Narrow Stairs, the band’s sixth album and supposedly one of the least liked. A confrontation about our inability to shake discontentedness through change, or anything else for that matter, Narrow Stairs should have hit home for fans — especially those who had been on board since the beginning, aging in real time with the band. Gibbard’s voice carries the same tone as usual: wistful, numb, despondent. Lyrics about the mediocrity of life and dullness of love thread themselves through the songs, but the verbal intricacies of past records are replaced with blunt metaphors (“Your New Twin Sized Bed”) and self-pitying choruses (“You Can Do Better Than Me”). They distract from the album’s biggest feat: Narrow Stairs is the first Death Cab for Cutie album where the emphasis isn’t on Ben Gibbard. The frontman, whose presence felt increasingly overwhelming in everything the band did, finally took a step back — and everything sounds a little more emotional because of it.

Narrow Stairs is the only record in Death Cab for Cutie’s catalog to feature more than two songs with three or more members credited as the songwriters — a wordy way of saying it’s the album that literally features more direct input from each member of the band. Bassist Nick Harmer, drummer Jason McGerr, and lead guitarist (and all-around maestro) Chris Walla come into focus with an undeniable fervor to be there. Without paragraphs of scrolling text blocking their way, they churn out bold extended jams, boisterous pop songs, and a couple of mawkish slow numbers, diverging ever so slightly from the traditional Death Cab for Cutie sound. Every song’s instrumental section sounds crisp. Yet you still feel the band’s ever-present midlife nostalgia and defeated sadness without Gibbard grabbing your hand to scribble it with reasons why you should be. There’s no felt-tip statements like “I will follow you into the dark” or “Nothing hurts like nothing at all when imagination takes full control,” or even yearbook-primed one-liners like “Each broken heart will eventually mend,” which begged to be written in gel pen. Because Gibbard’s usually deft skill begins to limp on this record, the lack of verbose passages is a good thing. Ten years since its release, it’s clearer than ever that Narrow Stairs was an experimentation in letting the band create atmospheres that didn’t need Gibbard’s storytelling to convey their core sentimentality.

Death Cab for Cutie wanted you to know that, too. The album’s press cycle was filled with interviews about exploring left field. They propped Narrow Stairs up as a “curve ball,” “a really polarizing record,” and “more dissonant,” each description colored with a genuine exhilaration. Even before the record was finished, members talked excitedly about the different approach they were taking. “Thus far it’s pretty weird and pretty spectacular; lots of blood. It’s creepy and heavy,” Walla said in a 2007 interview. “We’ve got a 10-minute-long Can jam, and had you suggested that possibility to me in 1998, I’d have eaten your puppy’s brain with a spoon.” Weird? Yes, undeniably so. The wording of a musician who feels excited about the new direction he gets to go in? Yes, that too. And so that cannibalistic jam became their lead single, “I Will Possess Your Heart”. Though the song’s lyrical content is easy to poke fun at, a one-sided obsessive relationship that harps a little too long, it’s Harmer who ultimately leads the narrative. He takes the reigns with a groove-heavy bass line and steers the band for the rest of the single’s eight-and-a-half-minute runtime, including its five-minute instrumental introduction, creating a mood equal parts allure and devious. It was the only single before the album, dropping two full months before the record release of May 13, 2008. The impression it made was immediate: Death Cab for Cutie want to change.

Of course, people had opinions once the album dropped. Despite being the band’s first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 and their highest charting album to date, Narrow Stairs caught fans off-guard. Death Cab for Cutie’s message boards and music blog comment sections were populated by confused listeners, several of whom felt betrayed by the straightforward lyrics. Music journalists were divided. There was no swift rejection to the album en masse. Instead, critics were either pleasantly surprised or significantly let down. Along came the 6.0 review on Pitchfork and even harsher two-star mention by Robert Christgau, as did a solid A from the A.V. Club and four-star praise from Rolling Stone. Even years later in retrospective ranking lists, Narrow Stairs gets chalked up as a hit-and-miss. In 2013, Stereogum ranked it sixth out of the band’s then-seven-album catalog, chalking the placement up to its “onset of fatigue.”

The reason Narrow Stairs is such a divisive album among fans and critics alike is because of the lens through which it’s evaluated. Ever since Death Cab for Cutie introduced themselves to the world more prominently with Something About Airplanes in 1998, we’ve been examining them through the lens of Gibbard’s diaristic, mopey storytelling. He may not have been setting scenes adequately at first but he did so accurately, describing relatable highs and lows with the deftness of someone who just lived through it. But this time, the album must be judged by the full band’s delivery. Though Transatlanticism, the pinnacle of their career, is often hailed as their saddest record​ because of how Gibbard tackles love and loss​, the hopeless realism​ presented​ on Narrow Stairs — your house burning down in a forest fire, bailing on your wedding vows the day of, noticing the imbalance of care in your relationship, and other fun scenarios — is far more gutting musically as you age. Death Cab for Cutie has always been a sad pop act, but with Narrow Stairs, they became an actual band.

As the producer, Walla claimed the plan all along was to be as hands-off as he could, placing the emphasis on live recordings and impromptu jams. It allows the members to lace emotion into their performance and preserve it with lightly edited cuts in the studio afterwards. That’s why it’s such a captivating, emotive listen. No track better exemplifies this than opener “Bixby Canyon Bridge”, one of the band’s all-time best singles. A lesson in perfectly executed crossfading, “Bixby” builds from an isolated, trembling guitar line to its heavy, stomping chorus. The transition is careful as it brims with emotion, so that by the time it reaches its peak — a crescendo of wiry guitars, deep-bellied bass, and unintelligible vocal harmonies, a blissfully numbing effect in combination — everything spills over the edge in a blend of anxiety and strange sedation.

Unlike the overly produced Plans that preceded it, Narrow Stairs capitalizes on the fact that it’s their second major label record. Though the overall sound is clean, Walla doesn’t use their Atlantic Records cash to splurge on glossy equipment, instead maintaining their old-school warmth by recording on analog tape. Each beautiful detail the band sneaks in, like the warped background synth on “Your New Twin Sized Bed” or the abrupt snap of the tape machine breaking on “Pity and Fear”, never gets lost in the mix. Over the course of 11 songs, Walla’s production work tightens the gaps between songs so that the record plays as a whole, paying attention to its segues without playing them up.

All of this adds up to position Narrow Stairs as, put simply, a very beautiful record. The most stunning moments come in understated waves. On “Grapevine Fires,” McGerr performs with emphatic, gentle, open-hearted movements, drumming in a way that recalls intimate jazz numbers. It sets the groundwork for a tragic story about Californian forest fires so that the multi-tracked vocal harmonies elongate a sense of fear while the rhythm moves forward peacefully, a contrasting portrait of rapid damage and slow dread. “Talking Bird” feels like a throwback to The Photo Album, with guitars that slide up the fretboard with a croak. Gibbard’s small pile of words about feeling manipulated by a supposed lover transform into a massive cage of their own, holding him hostage with heavy bass drum and a lurching tempo. Set aside the teenage nostalgia for the tenderness of Transatlanticism and earnesty in We Have the Facts. The songs on Narrow Stairs cultivate their own tragic scenarios by placing the listener in a seated position and letting them reflect on how much is out of their control. There’s no magic tricks to play up the feeling. It’s a record that grapples with reality without trying to magnify why.

Songs that sound childish on first listen reveal themselves to be self-aware commentary on the second listen. The barreling tone of the timpany on “You Can Do Better Than Me” and vintage organ feed into an overly comedic tone, essentially teasing past records where Gibbard dove headfirst into self-pity. You can’t mock the band if they beat you to it. Narrow Stairs loves to cringe at itself. The band ambles in this space, each member with a tongue in cheek, trying styles that are at once oafish and committed.

A decade since its release, Narrow Stairs deserves to free itself from ​its ​underwhelming lyrics and the gut reactions that inspired. Their brevity, simplicity, and size were diminished to let the music do more talking. Every drum fill and knotty guitar melody illustrate a short-wiring brain that’s forced to sit still. If elastic guitar pop songs like “Long Division” and “Cath…” have proven anything with age, it’s that the restlessness that comes from living with a poor romantic choice can rattle you to the point of inertia. In a sense, that’s what the whole of Narrow Stairs captures: a series of decisions aiming for change that bring such little growth. The album’s lack of pointedness is why I don’t remember the first time I listened to it, but why I do find myself returning to it more often than other albums. Despite its lack of brooding key changes or poetic verses, it’s an album that hits you with the worst kind of realization: that adulthood becomes a series of bland choices and bland reveals until the mundane becomes routine. If love is watching someone die, then sadness is trying to fill the space they left in jest. Eventually you become too exhausted to try.

1 comment