Review ·

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.




  • Bixby Canyon Bridge
  • I Will Possess Your Heart
  • No Sunlight
  • Cath…
  • Talking Bird
  • You Can Do Better Than Me
  • Grapevine Fires
  • Your New Twin Sized Bed
  • Long Division
  • Pity And Fear
  • The Ice Is Getting Thinner

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.






The Morning Benders - Talking Through Tin Cans Vetiver Thing of the Past

this post just sort of seems like you're criticizing death cab for cutie's demographic and popularity more than their actual music. although i'm a death cab fan, i'm not here to defend the band; if you don't like them, you don't like them. i just feel as though there has been, are, and will always be bands that write about love, and to suggest that death cab is targeting a certain demographic just because they write about a subject as well-worn as love is sort of like criticizing a punk band for not using enough chords.

douglas martin

I concur with Douglas, and would also like to ask why Zeiss is such and opponent of Gibbard's character sketches. It seems to me that if Death Cab fans have always appreciated such songs outlining some sort of character they will appreciate these songs just as much, and if they don't like this type of song writing they wouldn't be fans in the first place and won't buy the album. On top of that, it seems to me that their sound has changed a bit (the Can Jam 'I Will Possess Your Heart') on some of the tracks which and indicate some sort of evolution, while relying on a tried method of lyric creation.
However, I take contention with Zeiss' critique of 'Your New Twin Sized Bed', faulting Gibbard for rhyming 'bed' and 'head'. If a band wishes to convey a feeling or an idea why should they not feel free to do so, even if they do not involve some sort of complex rhyme sceme or an utter lack of ryhme. Just because Zeiss feels that lyrics should be needlessly complicated doesn't incriminate artists; it is Zeiss' personal problem.

Jake H.

agreed with above. you're thinking more about who's listening than what the actual music sounds like. is this really a death cab review? sounds more like someone venting about the current goings-on of popular culture. try to listen to a record with an open mind; it sounds like you care more about identifying those "OC-type" scenarios than you claim Gibbard to have.

it's a somewhat well-written review syntactically, but the content lacks any substance. i agree the album has its downsides, but the reviewer did a lazy job of identifying them. if you're going to blatantly attack a song (i.e. the way the reviewer attacked "twin sized bed" by poking fun at the rhyme scheme) at least have something more to say than some half-witted one-liner.


just want to concur with everyone above. it's not fair to dislike something because of its audience. true, this album is a bit bland. gibbar has lost his touch, lyrically, and when the music lost its simplicity, it lost the tension that made it enjoyable in the first place.

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