Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys: A newbie’s attempt to decode Death Cab

2011_DeathCabforCutie_CodesandKeysArtist: Death Cab for Cutie
Album: Codes and Keys
Year: 2011
Grade: B

In Brief: At first glance: Fun. At second glance: Not as deep as it appears. At third glance: Still quite tastefully constructed. At fourth glance: Tragic in hindsight.

Some music is a lot like Valentine candy. It’s a sweet gesture at first, and you take it at face value. Then the sugar rush begins to wear thin, and you realize the message doesn’t have much substance to it. But finally, you learn to appreciate it for the simple pleasure that it is, and figure it’s the thought behind it that counts. Death Cab for Cutie‘s Codes and Keys is sort of like that. It’s the sort of dreamy indie pop album when you get when a band who has spent years with the “emo” tag hanging around their necks decides they’re a little bored with guitars, and starts playing with the technology. You’ll probably know going into it whether you find this change of heart intriguing, or whether it will bore you to death. There doesn’t seem to be too much territory in between.

I’ll make the disclaimer right up front that I’m completely new to the band, so whatever alt-rock glory or overly melodramatic emoting may lie in their past, I can’t compare it to their present work. If that disqualifies me from being able to write a meaningful review of this record, feel free to stop reading. Suffice to say that I find it intriguing, but I can’t say whether it’s a change for the better or for the worse. Codes and Keys is a record that finds itself preoccupied with percussion grooves, with pianos and synthesizers, and with fuzzy ambiance in a few places where more traditional fans would presumably expect delicious riffs. With a few exceptions, it’s not much of a rock record, but then it doesn’t seem overly concerned with being one. You could call it “experimental”, though it’s not as much of a departure as you might hear from do-it-yourself stalwarts like Radiohead; instead, it finds distinct sounds to build each song around and then proceeds to make most of them unabashedly accessible. One gets the feeling that Death Cab for Cutie isn’t being intentionally difficult in any way; their exploration is one that fully invites the listener to walk alongside them rather than spending the journey feeling wholly alienated. (I have fun getting alienated by some of those other bands – don’t get me wrong. It just isn’t Death Cab’s thing.)

The advantage to this approach is that each song is unique. I can’t really confuse any two tracks on this album, or dismiss them as typical alt rock, because none seems to settle on a “default sound”. Purposefully outdated electronic sounds might dominate the landscape at one minute, while another song might play more organically, letting the band’s rhythm section lead the way while guitars and vocals play more of a supporting role. Lead singer Ben Gibbard is always present, but never overbearing in these songs – even at the height of an existential quandary, he sounds pretty content with his current state of mind. Large parts of the record are optimistic, even a bit lovey-dovey, played with a wink and a nudge as if to say, “We don’t have to be gloomy just because we were once an emo band.” Gibbard’s recent (and tragically short-lived) marriage to famously quirky actress Zooey Deschanel probably had a lot to do with that, though I’d be remiss to not credit Chris Walla (ironically the band’s guitarist, though his more notable role here is that of the producer) for seeding a lot of the song ideas. The overly inviting nature of the songwriting and the warm, colorful tones of the music were what drew me in and kept me listening, immediately disposing of any preconceived notions I’d cooked up based on the band’s rather morbid name. (Though, to be fair, there are a few semi-downer tracks near the end of the album.)

Then at some point I realized: This is all a bit slight. These songs all feel so darn good, but none of ’em really seem all that deep or meaningful or important. This might seem unfair given how I tend to gush about other indie rock bands whose lyrics are basically word salad, but maybe that’s part of it. The band’s lyrics can sometimes be impressionistic, but for the most part he wears his intentions on his sleeve. “That’s a nice thought”, I think to myself as the peppy, fun, upbeat tracks breeze on by, and then there might be a ballad here and there that makes me feel like it’s reaching for something more grandiose… but then it seems to stop just shy of any surprising twist or profound revelation. What’s missing in several songs (though not completely absent from the album) is a little something to puzzle over, to make me wonder, “Hey, why in the world did they take that left turn?” Codes and Keys doesn’t play it totally safe, or else it wouldn’t be such an interestingly diverse record. But there are times when it could stand to take more risks. It’s a solid, enjoyable record that wants like nothing else in the world to make you feel great (and it often succeeds for this listener), but it doesn’t quite achieve greatness.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Home Is a Fire
Things start off on a promising note – maybe not for those who are tired of all the indie rock bands growing up and fiddling around with electronics all of a sudden, but I can’t seem to stop being fascinated with it. Remember that there’s precedent for this, due to Ben Gibbard’s involvement in The Postal Service. I wouldn’t quite call this electronica, though, since real-life guitar, drums and bass are prominent, but they pulsate and skitter about as if the band members mad been programmed to drone on repetitively and frenetically. The melody is brimming over with nervousness, zigging and zagging nervously as Gibbard sings of a home that feels like anything but a consistent, comfortable place. Something in him is just itching to get away, yet there’s nowhere to go.
Grade: A

2. Codes and Keys
I’ll admit to being a bit irked with the title track, partially because it’s one of the most mild-mannered things on the album when I feel like it should have something more important to say, and partially because its piano riff, if you were to syncopate it a bit, makes me think of “Heart and Soul”. I grew up going to summer camps where the first four bars of that damn song were seemingly all anyone ever knew how to play on the piano, so I guess I’m just sensitive to the chord progression. In any event, despite the vague hints at a hidden meaning behind the frustrations of life, and occasionally intriguing lyrics (“And when you scream, love you seem/Like a child throwing stones at the sky/But when they fall back to earth/As minor chords of major works/In separate rooms, a single life/We are one, we are alive!”), I never really feel like the song takes off. It’s stuck in the middle somewhere between endearingly peppy and tastefully understated, never really engaging my attention on either end of the spectrum.
Grade: C+

3. Some Boys
This song finds a bit of success where “Codes and Keys” fell flat – it gives the rhythm a bit more of a spring in its step while marrying the mild-mannered, happy-go-lucky piano rock approach with a bit of synthpop. Consequently, it sounds like the kind of charmingly naive hit that a well-meaning young band could have cooked up in the 80s, eschewing the darker and more ironic side of synthpop for a simple story of twue wuv. It’s corny as all get-out… I can’t lie to you about that. At times, Gibbard’s psychoanalysis of all the other boys out there enjoying their one-night stands and feeling hollow inside while he gets the real deal in his perfectly monogamous relationship can be a bit cloying (I have to do the double take and wonder if they’re not covering some obscure Christian rock band), but then my sentimental side tells my cynical side to back off and just accept it for the sweet little love letter that it is. Unfortunately it’s probably one of those songs that Gibbard might feel a bit disingenuous singing nowadays, so it may have a limited shelf life.
Grade: A

4. Doors Unlocked and Open
I’m pretty sure I can guess what happened here. Someone in the band was listening to Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” at around the same time that they figured it’d be neat to try an exercise in abstract songwriting, and this five-and-a-half minute, driving groove track was born. It’s got that “four more measures” feel to it, where the drums speedily tick away the time and the guitars gently pick away at the recurring melody several times over before Gibbard’s vocals finally break in. When they do, the lyrics come in fragments, as if passing the mile markers on the highway that are actually mentioned in one such fragment. It’s a travelogue in very thin disguise, I figure – an impressionistic painting of the way an outsider views California, with the glitz and glamour in its pretentious big cities, and the blinding sun and log driving distances in between. it makes him long for a simpler life, presumably somewhere that he once called home, where music was made just for the fun of banging out tunes with friends in a garage, and where you could leave said garage unlocked without fear of your gear being stolen. That’s how I interpret it, at least – there are so many blanks to fill in between each spurt of one or two words that you could probably construct an entirely different story. Despite the obvious origins of the song, I find myself really getting into the groove, and also appreciating it as a thematic counterpoint to “Home Is a Fire”. if you’re restless at home and restless on the road, then where else can you go?
Grade: A

5. You Are a Tourist
This, the album’s lead single, sounds almost tailor-made to be agreeable to just about everyone. It’s just difficult to argue with the catchy guitar riff and the steady march of bass and drums – this is one of the best showcases for Death Cab’s rhythm section. It’s the most guitar-based track on the album, and the band clearly knows they’ve happened upon a gold-plated hook, so it’s no wonder that they dovetail the riff with a repeating vocal line – “When there’s a burning in your heart” – just to further drive home its simple appeal. The trick works for me even though I know it’s one of the oldest ones in the book. Rather than feeling like the out-of-place single on an album full of redheaded stepchildren (because really, the rest of the disc isn’t that weird), it feels like the focal point, pulling together themes of wandering and yearning for something more meaningful that have their pros and cons explored in the surrounding tracks, and managing not to mope around with it or feel hopelessly lost, but to offer an almost inspirational bent, as if to say, “You’re still the protagonist of your own story, and there’s still something to be found in the exploration”. Throw in a defiantly vibrant, intentionally over-the-top music video filmed in a single live take, and they’re quite capably competing with OK Go in the “quirky motivational rock singles” department.
Grade: A

6. Unobstructed Views
What seemed to be faint wisps of sound fading out at the end of “Tourist” are in fact the building blocks of an insistently gentle, ambient song – one that I can tell is probably the cause of a sharp divide among Death Cab fans. Some will hate it, because its elliptical sound bubbles seem to repeat forever and ever, sprawling out over half the song with little more than simple piano chords and sustained notes from the electric guitar being played as lightly as possible, all before Gibbard even bothers with any lyrics. Others – and I’m in this camp, personally – will love it for how effectively it paints a picture of an endless blue and white sky, just barely grazed by the tops of grey skyscrapers (and yes, I had that image in my head even before I heard the song in a trailer for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). Up here, you can see forever, and that’s how Gibbard views the sensation of being in love. it doesn’t get more perfect than this, and apparently even God himself couldn’t dictate a more meaningful existence. It’s a bold claim (and again, one that stings a bit given the demise of that relationship), but I know how good that sensation of being at the top of the world feels while it lasts, so I still find it to be meaningful. It’s not all the same stuff repeating endlessly, either – the piano chords temporarily take this turn further and further down into moodier notes until suddenly getting lifted back out again, like a bird folding its wings to enter a freefall and then gracefully swooping upward again. As he describes the clouds evaporating and being made new again, culminating in the phrase, “They become new love”, those last two words ring out like an epiphany experienced at a stunning mountain vista. This song may be a naive one, perhaps even one that tempts fate, but it’s so triumphantly textured that I can’t consider it anything less than a winner.
Grade: A

7. Monday Morning
Back to the daily grind, I guess. This song tries to make the best of those ordinary days, seeing the unusual beauty in them that passes others by, because hey, it’s all different when you’re in love. In a song whose rhythm comes close to settling for the same lackluster tempo as “Codes and Keys”, but which manages to be slightly more interesting due to its backdrop of rhythmic synthesizers, Gibbard comes his closest to specifically describing the muse who inspired so much of this album – a move which he’ll probably regret if forced to play these songs in future setlists, but which must have seemed like the perfect idea for a song at the time. As he sings of his amusement with her love for old things and her distaste for modern music (hmmm, wonder what she though of Death Cab, then), he might as well be crooning, “This one’s for you, pretty quirky Zooey!” I don’t mean to give the guy a hard time for that. It’s cute and I’m sure it must have been taken as a compliment at the time. Unfortunately there’s a bit of lyrical laziness here that leaves me wondering exactly what began on a Monday morning, or why that’s so special to a song that is otherwise about loving odd things. And when the chorus reaches the line, “When you’re looking in the mirror, what you see is gonna astound you”, I can’t help but feel like he’s shoehorning words in where they don’t really fit. The slurred speech employed to make the syllables match the surrounding lines results in pronounciations like “mirr” and “gonnastound”, which doesn’t exactly make for a memorable chorus.
Grade: C+

8. Portable Television

We’re back to trying the jaunty, piano-rock thing again, and this is probably where it works out the best for Death Cab. Jason McGerr provides the kind of syncopated beat, heavy on the toms, that you could almost swing dance to if you tweaked it just a teeny bit, and it would actually become a lively show-stopper if the production (which strangely seems to fade the piano into the background once the drums and bass get doing) wasn’t holding it back. Musically, it could be stronger, but lyrically, it’s enigmatic in a good way, describing an unusual road trip during which a discarded television was discovered in the snow, leading to a surreal and possibly religious experience that I’ll admit I don’t quite understand. Unlike other songs on this album, where I can grasp a basic theme, or else I just think, “It’s really abstract; that’s cool”, I keep wanting to pick away at it and discern what it means. Anyone can load a song down with nostalgia and odd religious metaphors – it’s almost expected in today’s indie rock landscape – but it takes careful phrasing to make me constantly think, “Which of the two possible meanings did they intend for that line?”
Grade: B-

9. Underneath the Sycamore
This is actually the darkest song on the album, though you have to do a little digging to realize that. On the surface it’s breezy, pleasant, a single song about finding safety in the shade of a tree. Truth be told, it sounds like a super-lite version of The Killers, since Gibbard’s got this local vocal affectation going on that seems to veer slightly off-key just like Brandon Flowers, but with less of an obnoxious “yelp” to it. That isn’t the world’s greatest musical style, and it sorts of dulls my curiosity for a song with an otherwise fascinating premise, since it’s basically about two victims of a deadly car crash, who otherwise have nothing in common, finding some sort of common ground as their spirits apparently haunt the place where they were killed. Personally, I think such a theme would call for a bit more musical angst, but then I guess there’s some precedent for the easygoing dissonance (see the oldie “Last Kiss” that Pearl Jam famously resurrected for more on this topic). What really kills it for me is a rather dunderheaded chorus that makes the mistake of matching up a weak rhyme with poor enunciation – “We are the same, we are both safe, underneath the sycamore”. Gibbard is slurring his consonants just enough to make us wonder if he’s really just singing “We are the same” twice in a row and being rather lazy about it. Whatever impact those words might have is lost in the inevitable questions that will undoubtedly be asked by fellow listeners – “Is he saying sane?” “No, it’s just same again, right?” Surely there must have been a better vocal take that they could have used here.
Grade: C

10. St. Peter’s Cathedral
Here we get the flipside of the “religious experience” that might have been alluded to in “Portable Television”. Starting off very slow, with the lonely chiming of a single synth note as if it were some sort of computerized church bell, Death Cab slowly builds a ballad that explores the cold, vast space of a cathedral, and declares it to be a technical marvel but also a symbol of fear of the unknown and the superstition that springs from it. Long story short, Ben Gibbard doesn’t seem to be a fan of traditional notions of Heaven and Hell. At first this is admittedly tough for me to swallow, but I’ve grown to accept it as a story of how strange all of this artifice and symbolism must look to an outsider, who is perhaps convinced it’s all just made up to control people and make them follow someone’s sense of decorum. I don’t personally believe that “there’s nothing past this”, as the song so repeatedly surmises when staring the dark abyss of death clear in the face, but I can understand why those who do might still want to make something meaningful out of this life just as those of us who believe in moving on to an afterlife should hopefully still want. (So in that sense, it’s a reminder – are those of us who do adhere to more traditional religious thinking merely putting on a show, or are we actually trying to make life on Earth better in the here and now instead of just pining for a better life in Heaven? Food for thought.) The group certainly knows how to build from nearly nothing up to a solid groove, which in this case is helped a great deal by a simple “ba-da-ba-da” background vocal that grows in intensity as the song reaches its climax. A simple approach, but it lets a little bit of light in through all the ornate stained glass windows, illuminating what would otherwise be an incredibly bleak song.
Grade: B-

11. Stay Young, Go Dancing
After the dark ruminations on death in those last few songs, you’d expect something slow, epic, and emotional to cap off the album at this point. (It’d be fitting, given the band name.) But Death Cab pulls up out of the spiral and returns to defiant optimism, with a short, sweet ode to remaining young at heart and trying one’s darndest to live forever. There’s nothing electronic about it – all of their fancy gear is traded in for an acoustic arrangement buoyed by strings, and the whole thing is light on its feet, the kind of thing you could do a giddy, swirly little dance to. Listening to Gibbard croon about “her song in your heart, it could never let you down” makes me once again feel empathy for the guy – you figure when you write something like this, you’ll have the object of your affection still around years down the road to sing it to. So it’s an unintentionally bittersweet ending, but I can still go back in time, imagine it’s about something that would last forever and ever, and feel a sense of solidarity with that notion that when love is really good, it keeps you feeling young.
Grade: B+

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?

Home Is a Fire $1.75
Codes and Keys $.50
Some Boys $1.50
Doors Unlocked and Open $1.75
You Are a Tourist $1.75
Unobstructed Views $1.50
Monday Morning $.50
Portable Television $.75
Underneath the Syncamore $.25
St. Peter’s Cathedral $.75
Stay Young, Go Dancing $1.25
TOTAL: $12.25

BAND MEMBERS:
Ben Gibbard: Lead vocals, guitar, piano
Chris Walla: Guitar, keyboards
Nick Harmer: Bass
Jason McGerr: Drums

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
http://open.spotify.com/album/26HVbJdxW1zC799gz8yzUr

USEFUL LINKS:
http://www.deathcabforcutie.com/
http://www.facebook.com/deathcabforcutie

Originally published on Epinions.com.

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2 thoughts on “Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys: A newbie’s attempt to decode Death Cab

  1. Pingback: Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways: Insert obligatory “we built these cities on rock & roll” joke here. | murlough23

  2. Pingback: Death Cab for Cutie – Kintsugi: If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway and make the fixing really obvious. | murlough23

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