Friday, May 16, 2008

Death Cab Descends the Narrow Stairs

Hey everyone, here is my review of the new Death Cab CD. I actually haven't edited it yet, but I wanted to post it anyway. I will be adding corrections soon.

"I pulled On The Road off the shelf and found myself reading it between classes, and at that time in my life it was exactly what I craved, exactly what I needed to hear. I thought, 'That’s the way, that’s the ideal life, that’s great.'" Ben Gibbard, the lead singer of the indie band Death Cab for Cutie, has always idolized the beat writer Jack Kerouac for his acute sense of the way life should be lived, his intuition that something was missing. When writing the lyrics for his new album, he followed the footsteps of his hero by taking a trip to the terrain of Big Sur in California.

The result of his retreat is Death Cab's new album entitled "Narrow Stairs." In this venture, they are all grown up. Gone is the sentimentality of previous Death Cab projects; the album has a tight, impressive, and even shocking unity, which I think comes primarily from the stark and honest lyrics.

The first song "Bixby Canyon Bridge" is evidently addressed to Kerouac, as Gibbard sings, "I chased the end of your road"; he went to Big Sur in search of some kind of answer, only to find himself disappointed. Not only disappointed, but aware that he is struggling to keep his search alive: "I want to know my fate if I keep up this way/ It's hard to want to stay awake/ And everyone you meet they all seem to be asleep."

The lyrical tone never wavers the rest of the album: the songs "New Sunlight," "Long Division," and "You Can Do Better Than Me" sing of the death of optimism, the failure of relationships, and of the embarrassment caused by his unquenchable thirst: "It's like my heart can't be tamed/ And I fall in love every day/ And I feel like a fool."

One of the most lyrically and musically impressive songs is "Cath" where he sings about a wedding scene with characteristic Death Cab irony: "As the flashbulbs burst she holds a smile/ Like someone would hold a crying child/ Soon everybody will ask what became of you/ Your heart was dying fast and you didn't know what to do." The foreboding sense of disappointment once again surfaces in this song: "The whispers that it won't last roll up and down the pews."

Images of doom, fire, and graveyards in "Grapevine Fires" provide for the grimmest and most foreboding song of the album. Gibbard, the indie king of days gone by, laments over burned out dreams and the futility of love, as he delivers some honest lyrics: "A wake-up call to a rented room/ Sounded like an alarm of impending doom/ To warn us it's only a matter of time." The darkness in this song is not abandoned throughout the album. Gibbard himself describes the whole album as a descent, the same fall he talks about in "Pity and Fear," the descent down narrow stairs.

This descent brings Gibbard to the final track entitled "The Ice is Getting Thinner." In this somber piece he describes how he and his dear buried their love in a "wintery grave." And as winter melts into spring, he croons above a gently weeping guitar: "There's nowhere we can go with nothing underneath/ Then it saddens me to say what we both knew was true/ That the ice was getting thinner under me and you."

Sandwiched between the darkness of disappointment and frustrated desire that encompasses the entire work is the track entitled, "Talking Bird." Gibbard sings to the bird saying, "Though you know so few words/ They're on infinite repeat." The image he creates here reminds one of Chopin's incessant note in his famous prelude, the raindrop note, and as he croons to this bird it becomes clear that the song is addressed to this heart inside of him that is not defeated by disappointment. He vows to love this bird "Till the breath leaves your delicate frame."

Gibbard himself wrote this reflection concerning his new album: "My life really is great: I do exactly what I want to do for a living, I have a wonderful person to share my life with, I have a great family, I have great friends. But somehow there’s a void. I’m the last person who should be complaining or wondering why I’m perpetually unhappy. I would like to think that my lack of contentment is part of what makes my work the way it is, and for the better."

It is exactly this sentiment, or rather, disposition, that makes his work take the shape of a prayer, the only beautiful thing on this transitory earth. The album is dark, but not desperate; it doesn't turn out perfect, but it is beautiful. Gibbard still wants to say the same about life.