Before I really got into music and before Ben Gibbard became my arch nemesis by marrying Zooey Deschanel, Death Cab for Cutie defined indie rock for me. Right around the time Plans came out, the inoffensive jangle of hit singles “Soul Meets Body” and “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” were so omnipotent, I assumed that was what all independent music got off on. A song like “Crooked Teeth”, a bona fide classic in my mind, was vaguely quirky but nevertheless incredibly safe, the musical equivalent of a soft pat on the back. The group’s music never spoke out of turn and addressed love and faith in terms so grand they wouldn’t so much as ruffle the perfectly coifed hair of a JC Penny model. When I later found out that the group’s name was based on a song that Digital Dream Door named one of the strangest of all time, it made perfect sense. Death Cab for Cutie were a group with just enough snark to keep their creativity levels barely above cruise control.
And then “I Will Possess Your Heart” came out. At over eight minutes, the track was the last thing I was expecting to hear from the homely guys who wrote “The Sound of Settling”. It told a story through the perspective a persistent stalker, but Gibbard worded his lines so as to make the narrator sound almost amiable. “How I wish you could see the potential,” the protagonist quietly laments after nearly five minutes of an ominous bassline and light piano. “The potential for you and me.” It was a brilliant expression of a complicated character narrative and the song’s video was just as fascinating, a camera wordlessly following a girl across the world; haunting and yet so ambiguous. The song convinced me Death Cab were capable of making music that could confound as well as comfort. At the very least it signaled a maturation in style.
That newfound darkness, to a certain extent, is injected into all the songs of Death Cab for Cutie’s eighth album, Code and Keys. While no track reaches the creative heights of “I Will Possess”, the album is more consistent in the group’s attempts to stray away from major chords and verses-chorus-verse structures. The chorus of “House Is A Fire” pivots on a strange key, sounding unsure but intriguing amidst electronic percussion I hesitate to relate to Ben Gibbard’s 2003 one-off, The Postal Service. Songs like “Some Boys”, “Doors Unlocked and Open” and first single “You Are A Tourist” are conventional pop songs built around foreboding piano lines and heavy bass. This sonic gloom, along with the album’s improved production, is a welcomed addition to the Death Cab aesthetic that gives the group a much-needed depth.
However, there are other songs on the album that have a Plans-like obsequiousness. “Underneath the Sycamore”, “Monday Morning” and the title track are laden with timid acoustics and Jason McGrerr’s painfully metronomic drumming (which is a shame because he has proven himself to be quite good on songs like “Meet Me on the Equinox” and “I Will Possess”). These are great songs, but I prefer Death Cab when they go for something greater than the sum of their parts, like on penultimate track, “St. Peter’s Cathedral.” Beginning with Gibbard singing over light organ, the song builds with a faint choir and synthetic percussion until the group strikes a minor chord and the track swells wonderfully in a flurry of Boy Scout chants and Gibbard’s insistence that there is no afterlife.
For all this talk of a discovered negativity, Codes and Keys will probably be known as one of the few Death Cab albums to end on a happy note. “Stay Young Go Dancing” is just about as joyous of a waltz as you can surmise from its title. It’s a great song like the rest of Codes and Keys, but it also shares their marginal confliction. You see, at this point, Death Cab for Cutie have a lot of styles to contend with. I haven’t even mentioned albums of that innocuous back pat pop like Transatlanticism and Something About Airplanes that longtime Death Cab fans were hoping the group would return to after Narrow Stairs. There isn’t really anything like that on Codes and Keys, and, personally, I’m happy about that. It’s no revelation, but the album is an indication that the group continues to move onto something different, a quality of which I am pleasantly surprised to find.