Like his hero Jack Kerouac, Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard has but one moment of unbridled self-reflection that cuts all of the superfluous character sketches, the self-indulged self-loathing, and idealizing of people he wishes he could be. In Kerouac’s case, it was one of his final novels, Big Sur, in which he described life as an alcoholic, post-On the Road. In Gibbard’s case, it’s the first track on his band’s tepid sixth album, Narrow Stairs.
The track, “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” finds Gibbard going on somewhat of a pilgrimage to Big Sur (he actually wrote much of the album in the same cabin where Kerouac wrote Big Sur) and not finding anything he’s looking for. Over a ruminative swirling guitar line, he sings: “I cursed myself for being surprised/ That this didn’t play like it did in my mind/ All the way from San Francisco/ As I chased the end of your road,” before guitarist Chris Walla’s always sterling production blasts the song off and Gibbard comes to terms with the fact that he’s “no closer to any sort of truth.”
It’s a somber song that actually has real problems (i.e., when you realize the dream is better than the reality) that only disappoints when Gibbard returns to his old tricks of singing about a certain population demographic (you, O.C.-missing, twenty-five-year-old with the tragic haircut) and their relationship problems.
Narrow Stairs is Death Cab’s second album for the hallowed grounds of Atlantic Records, and, unlike 2005's Plans, the band sound like they don’t have to impress anyone anymore. They’ve made it to the bigs, thus there’s no need for the heady atmospherics and densely multitracked messes found on Plans, just the relatively straight-ahead rock of their early albums.
Like every other Death Cab album, Gibbard’s lyrics bog down Narrow Stairs with a kind of suburbanite malaise that few bands can even approach. Where Plans aimed to be about "Important” stuff like the connection between love and death, Narrow Stairs finds Gibbard more than willing to play to type, offering the same staid character sketches he’s used since his first EP and songs that reiterate his point, that, like, love can be rough on you.
He takes on the relationship between a stalker and the stalkee (“I Will Possess Your Heart”), overbearing mates in a relationship (“Talking Bird”), uses sixth-grade math to explain a break-up (“Long Division”) and stretches a relationship-as-ice metaphor far too thin on “The Ice Is Getting Thinner.” The worst offender, however, is “Your New Twin-Sized Bed,” during which Gibbard talks about a breakup in terms of a lover’s bed size. It’d be easier to make space in bed for Gibbard if only he hadn’t insisted on rhyming “bed” with “head” over and over again.
Of course, these tracks will hit Gossip Girl, Grey’s Anatomy, and every similar show like a bomb in the next five months (look out especially for “Ice,” as I can actually see the closing credits for The Hills playing as I listen to it). It’s a shame the only people Gibbard really has to impress anymore are Adam Brody-types, because when he went searching for meaning at the temple of Kerouac, he delivered with his best song yet. Unfortunately, Jack’s presence doesn’t inform all of Narrow Stairs; the rest of the album has more in common with Facebook wall postings than any literary pursuit.
Narrow Stairs is the first Death Cab for Cutie full-length since 2005's Plans. Not that the band's members haven't been busy in the interim. Chris Walla released his first solo album, Field Manual, earlier in 2008, and Ben Gibbard was involved with the About a Son soundtrack and a Burn to Shine compilation. Songs like "I Will Possess Your Heart" (the album's first single) and "You Can Do Better Than Me" show Death Cab embracing its more emo leanings.
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