Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs: You’ve gotta spend some time with me.

Artist: Death Cab for Cutie
Album: Narrow Stairs
Year: 2008
Grade: B+

In Brief: Death Cab rode an existential crisis as far down into the abyss as they were willing to go on Narrow Stairs. Though it may present itself as a challenging record, even an ornery one at times, it’s got some of the group’s best melodies, most riveting performances, and most intriguing lyrics. Some might say it’s a dark horse pick, and Ben Gibbard himself has said he doesn’t want to get this dreary ever again. But despite all the fear and angst expressed here, I’m still convinced this is the best record Death Cab for Cutie has ever put out.


I’m not what you would call a typical Death Cab for Cutie fan. To be truthful, there are times when I think the word “fan” might be overselling my interest in this long-running indie band a bit. I haven’t been there since the beginning like their most dedicated (and sometimes most vocal fans), I wasn’t even there at the height of their breakthrough popularity in the mid-2000s, and by the time I finally managed to get into the band, they had just put out an album that was considered one of their weakest by many, and that later got dismissed by frontman Ben Gibbard as a relic of a time in his life when he wasn’t really communicating his experiences truthfully in his songwriting. That record would be 2011’s Codes & Keys, which I do still enjoy quite a bit, likely more than the actual band members do at this point. But it’s a weird starting point for anyone new to the band, due to how uncharacteristically happy most of it was, and ever since then I’ve felt like their new material has been inconsistent, trying to figure out a way to bridge the gap between their angsty emo side and their pop crossover side, with middling results. It didn’t take me long to start going back in time and understanding better what the band sounded like in their heyday, but to be honest with you, I’ve never raved about most of that stuff, either. Most would cite the band’s landmark release Transatlanticism as the best possibly entry point, and I can’t disagree with that record’s epic scope and its attention to sonic detail, but I feel like a bit of a poseur when I listen to it and realize that very few of its songs actually resonate with me. Going back any farther than that has only produced diminishing returns so far. So basically I’m at odds with both the first wave of Death Cab fans, and the second wave that was disdained by that first wave for only getting into them once they became more “pop”. But there’s one record put out by the band that I actually think is pretty great, that I still enjoy listening to from end to end, and that I think is more defensible as a favorite pick than Codes & Keys, which I clung to for years due to being more familiar with it than anything else they’d done. That would be their 2008 release Narrow Stairs, which now stands in stark contrast with their breakthrough success and frequent song placement in TV dramas during the Plans era right before it, and the relatively settled-down bliss of Codes & Keys right after it.

Since I wasn’t there to witness the reaction to Narrow Stairs in real time when it came out, I can only imagine what it must have been like. The band knew they were making something more raw and less polished, and they definitively anticipated that not everyone who had gotten on board with Transatlanticism or Plans would be into it. The biggest change from their last few records was the decision by producer/guitarist Chris Walla to just let the band play in a room for most of these songs and see what happened, rather than meticulously piecing things together with everyone recording their separate parts as bands generally do in the studio. That’s not to say that there aren’t production flourishes here and there, or songs where interesting effects were applied after the fact to accentuate some of the emotions that the band was wrestling with at the time. But it’s very much a “live” record, even on some of its catchiest singles. And boy, it is not in a hurry to present those immediately gratifying singles upfront. In fact, the two songs that lead it off are among the band’s longest, densest, and most repetitive, almost defying the listener to hang in there through the unrelenting angst. Musically, this isn’t a particularly heavy or psychedelic record, but it’s definitely one that aims to get under your skin and get you thinking about the topics that were haunting the band at the time. I’d say that it has a softer, more contemplative center once you get past its weighty openers and the catchier singles that follow, but then it ends on a pair of rather unsettling songs as well. Gibbard was clearly exorcising some demons at the time that he hoped to never have to wrestle with so intensely ever again, and you can hear it in his nervous, slightly broken, yet still strangely boyish vocals. This is one of those records that starts out with a man challenging his own views on the afterlife, on love, on what the very purpose of his existence is… and it doesn’t get much more hopeful from there.

Now despite how riveting I’ve found a lot of these songs after taking the time to really sit with this record and digest the aspects of it that initially creeped me out a bit, I have to admit that there are moments I still find underwhelming. That “soft center” I mentioned earlier is honestly rather un-exciting from a musical standpoint, compared to the urgency of the first handful of songs, and that honestly may be what took this album out of the running when I considered redoing my list of all-time favorites from the 2000s. I’m still more than happy to defend Narrow Stairs as an underrated indie rock classic, but I’ll admit that I myself may be underrating it slightly, too. It’s definitely not a record I’d expect anyone to listen to for the first time and think “Oh wow, this is amazing!” But thanks to the strength of the band’s performance when the band is firing on all cylinders, there are some percussion grooves and creepy basslines and strangely delightful piano riffs that will burrow their way into your brain with repeated listens, confronting you like a recurring dream that might initially seem like a nightmare, but underneath the scary monster baring its teeth at you, there’s really just a frightened little boy longing to be understood. Even if I may not relate to some of his darkest fears or his more cynical confessions, I’m happy to sit with him just a little longer and let him work out through our conversation that he’s not as alone as he thinks he is, instead of running away and confirming what he was afraid of all along.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Bixby Canyon Bridge
The setting for this opening track is both beautiful and bleak at the same time. We find Ben Gibbard at a stunning scenic vista along the narrow, winding highway through the remote part of the California coast known as Big Sur – the Bixby Canyon Bridge, probably the most photographed spot along the route due to the high canyon spanned by the architectural marvel. He’s not there to sightsee, though – he’s there to honor the memory of author Jack Kerouac, whose affinity for the region was as well-documented as his descent into isolation and alcoholism. (Kerouac clearly left his mark on Gibbard, as he would team up with Jay Farrar the next year to record an entire album based on his prose.) The purpose of his pilgrimage is to reach the place where Kerouac’s soul had died, and to hope that the visit would speak to him in some way. What starts out as a soft ballad full of pretty arpeggios quickly gets more cluttered and noisy as Gibbard stares off into the scenic but unsettling void, fails to find any profound message in the experience, and curses himself for expecting anything different. The apex of the song, with its muddy guitars and its relentless, claustrophobic drumming, hammers the listener over and over with the phrase “You just can’t see a dream”. After several minutes of this, the song finally pulls out of its existential tailspin, with Gibbard trying to shake off the haunting experience as climbs back up out of the canyon and drives away, realizing that he is “No closer to any kind of truth/As I must assume was the case with you.” Not exactly a comforting way to start off the album, but certainly a gripping one, performed in such a way that the rhythm section seems to box the listener in and force them to grapple with the disquieting notion that there’s nothing we can truly know about the realm beyond death, or whether such a realm even exists.
Grade: A-

2. I Will Possess Your Heart
Arguably the album’s catchiest song, this is also its longest and one of its most daring. That’s mostly due to the sheer audacity of it – this thing starts off with an ominous bass line that repeats for five damn minutes before Gibbard even sings the first verse. I’ll give Nick Harmer a ton of credit here – not many bassists could come up with such a memorable riff that it’s actually enjoyable to hear it drone on and on for that long. It gets stuck in my head like nothing else, and it kind of has a creepy effect on me, and I know that is fully intended, because it’s essentially a song about a stalker who is misguided into thinking that the affection he feels for his crush could someday be returned. It’s pretty clearly one-sided and possessive to the point of being problematic, and I’m glad that Gibbard is being self-aware here, painting his protagonist as a bad guy who doesn’t realize the psychological trauma he’s inflicting by continuing to make these advances and refusing to knock it off despite being categorically rejected each time. (Let’s just say that he’s written some other songs where the lyrics achieve a similar effect accidentally. This guy doesn’t take breakups particularly well.) The rest of the band deserves a lot of credit here, too – Jason McGerr keeps the drums galloping along at a brisk pace, Chris Walla uses the guitar mostly for eerie ambiance, and there’s some piano and vibraphone played by Gibbard and/or Walla that adds a melodic flourish to help offset the hypnotic effect of all that repetition. Even when Gibbard’s vocals finally chime in, the song doesn’t waver much from the chord progression it’s already established, but by that point, the music has already communicated volumes about his intent, which is basically to just keep wearing her down until he gives in. It’s a pretty solid deconstruction of the “dogged nice guy” trope, who we’re used to seeing portrayed as preferable to the dumb, sexually aggressive jock in a lot of rom-coms, but in reality a lot of these types of guys are just as abusive, just in a way that’s easier to disguise as wholesome to onlookers. It’s rare that I would consider a song this long, repetitive, and downright creepy to be a masterpiece, but Death Cab absolutely hit the nail on the head with this one, and I can confidently say it’s one of their best and most iconic songs.
Grade: A+

3. No Sunlight
Whew, those first two tracks were pretty exhausting. Amazing, but also emotionally draining. It’s time for a compact, easygoing indie pop anthem, right? Sort of. Death Cab certainly delivers a more conventional hook with the peppy drum beat, strong bass line, and more conventionally melodic lead guitar. It’s a solid punch of sunny energy packed into two and a half minutes of music. It’s also completely at odds with Gibbard’s despairing lyric, which explores the old “loss of innocence” trope as he compares the safety, security, and willingness to believe in his dreams that he felt at a young age to the cynicism and existential angst he struggles with now, likening it to grey storm clouds blocking out a sunny blue sky and turning into a storm that never abates. I’ll admit it, I’m sucker for a good sad song set to deceptively happy music. Make the lyrics a tad more inscrutable, and add some exuberant backing vocals, and this could almost be a New Pornographers song.
Grade: A+

4. Cath…
The parade of stellar singles continues here, with the end of “No Sunlight” executing a faint but well-timed bleed into the opening riff of this song, which is one of the album’s more straightforward and guitar-heavy tracks. At first I didn’t consider this song to be particularly impressive, but once I paid closer attention to what the rhythm section was doing and just the sheer density of it, the magic of the whole “let the band play live in a room and just record ’em doing their thing” approach won me over. I’m glad to have the background info that this song was inspired by the character Catherine from the novel Wuthering Heights, even though I’ve never read it myself. Basically the important story points to take away from it are that (a) a woman is about to get married, (b) she’s chosen her groom with security in mind rather than because she’s in love, and (c) she’s secretly in love with another guy who she’s had to forsake in order to go through with this. All of that would be pretty clear even without knowing anything about the story, but to be honest, I’d be tempted to interpret Gibbard’s lyrics as though he were playing the role of that other guy, and determining on her behalf that she really belonged with him. Really, I think this “Cath” character is the protagonist of the song, even if she’s being addressed in the second person and the lyrics are trying to sum up how she feels from someone else’s point of view. The idea here is that everyone can see it, so the ruse fools nobody, but everyone’s too polite to try to stop her from going through with it. She gets to make her own decision and live with the consequences either way.
Grade: A

5. Talking Bird
After one of the most stellar song sequences ever to kick off an indie rock record, suddenly everything comes to a screeching heart with this dull, plodding performance. Ugh, this track is such a struggle to get through every time I put this album on – I think it’s well written and I really want to like it, but every single band member seems to be actively working against the goal of making it memorable. Slow, unimaginative bass line hitting all the expected quarter notes, limp drumming at half that speed, Gibbard drawing out a lot of his notes in a way that honestly isn’t a flattering sound for his fragile voice… I guess there’s some guitar and piano there for mood, but none of it is really doing anything distinctive. This track is less than half the length of “I Will Possess Your Heart”, but it honestly feels like it drags on for twice as long. It’s a shame, because the song presents a pretty good metaphor that builds off of the theme of possessive love introduced earlier in the record. Basically a woman is being kept captive in a relationship as though she were a pet – she’s not being treated as an equal or a partner in any way, but the guy’s just charming enough to deceive her into thinking she has some freedom and autonomy, by insisting that the “cage” is open and she’s welcome to come and go as she pleases. Having this right after “Cath…” sort of implies that this is the outcome of the woman choosing to marry for security rather than love – her needs are provided for, but she’s basically a showpiece for the well-to-do company that he keeps. A compellingly sad lyric, which is unfortunately shackled to a dead weight of a musical performance with enough gravitational force to seriously drag down an otherwise great album.
Grade: D+

6. You Can Do Better than Me
This song never really struck me as all that memorable either, which is a shame, because it’s got some whimsical, Brian Wilson-esque musicianship going for it, with the piano and organ and timpani and all that marching in 3/4 time. It isn’t quite at the right tempo for that to be as delightful of an effect as it probably should, though – and at just under two minutes, it isn’t really given much time to develop before we move on to the next track. Thematically, it fits with the last few songs, as it’s a sad reflection on a couple who chooses to stay together out of convenience even though the guy knows the woman he’s with deserves better, because they’re too afraid of being alone. The song completely abandons its rhythm when it reaches its awkward final realization, and then the drum beat from the next song starts to bleed in before there’s much time for it to make an impact. I tend to see this one as more of an interlude or intermission, which I guess is why I’ve never been too hard on it.
Grade: C+

7. Grapevine Fires
The drum beat I mentioned, which bleeds over from the end of the previous track, is a mellow but interesting one, with McGerr doing his approximation of what’s known as the “Purdie Shuffle”, basically a polyrhythm with triplets played against half-notes. (I hope I’m describing that correctly; I’m sure some music theory nerd will correct me here, but you get the gist.) For a song on such an intense subject as a wildfire threatening to consume people’s homes and nearby vineyards in a rural region of California, the music is surprisingly centered and calm, with an electric piano being the main instrument other than the drums. Gibbard’s vocals are slow and measures; he steps back and acts as more of an observer rather than angsting over all the destruction he’s witnessing. This would be puzzling if not for the final verse which unlocks it – as he waits in a hilltop graveyard at a safe distance for the firefighters to beat back the flames, he notices a friend’s young daughter dancing about the gravestones and seemingly having no cares in the world. Just for that moment, he feels assured that everything will be alright – a surprisingly upbeat statement given the dour tone of this record thus far. It’s a thought that kind of circles back to “No Sunlight” – he’s getting a brief glimpse of the childhood innocence he once cherished, and it turns out to be contagious, and suddenly a little bit of the smoke clears and a few rays of sunlight come shining through the gap.
Grade: B+

8. Your New Twin Sized Bed
The mellow midsection of the album concludes here, with another mid-tempo song that doesn’t do a ton to grab my attention musically, but that I think is pretty well-written. Gibbard knows his way around an intriguing lyric that explores the emotional significance of an otherwise mundane object, and I can’t say that I can name a whole lot of other songs that give this much focus to a mattress, outside of maybe The Chainsmokers‘ “Closer”. Here he describes a man sleeping on a twin sized mattress after making the decision to give away his old queen bed because it takes up too much space, with the implication being that he’s gone through a breakup or divorce, and now he’s all alone. Finally getting rid of the queen, which was left as a free handout on a street corner for some passerby to take, is basically admitting defeat – that’s the moment that the relationship truly ended in this poor guy’s mind. Gibbard’s lyrics are sympathetic, and even though it’s a sad story, he describes that simple act of letting go of an old possession as a way for the guy to stop torturing himself.
Grade: B

9. Long Division
Using math problems as metaphors is admittedly a sketchier approach to songwriting. I’m not 100% sure that the notion of a guy feeling like a “remainder” left over at the end of the long and difficult math problem that was a relationship quite stands up to logical scrutiny. I’m also not sure that I care all that much, because this song packs such a kinetic punch that I still enjoy it immensely. Chalk it up to another strong drum beat and more meaty bass from Harmer (who co-wrote this one with Gibbard and Walla), and a simple but sharp acoustic riff that cuts through the chunky arrangement like a knife through warm peanut butter. It’s yet another great example of how great this band can sound when they cook up a solid melody and a fun chorus hook, and they hammer it out in the studio and then leave it the hell alone instead of sanding the edges off in post-production. Plus, tell me you can sit through this one without wanting to start singing the words “To be a remain, remain, remain, remainder!” At least for me, that’s pretty much impossible.
Grade: A-

10. Pity and Fear
I’ve mentioned on a few occasions how one track will subtly bleed into the next on this record – that’s actually been happening throughout most of the back half so far, creating a sense of increasing tension and momentum that all builds up to this beguiling performance. The first thing you’ll notice about this song is its literal use of tabla to compliment the drums, which gives it the feel of being lost in a foreign, unfamiliar place. Gibbard is credited with percussion along with McGerr on this record, so I can only assume the two of them masterminded this track, with the more conventional drums slowly taking over as the driving force of the song even though the tabla continues throughout. The song does a great job of moving from a sparse beginning to an intense emotional climax, with a guitar solo that seems to get louder and grittier towards the end. The entire band is really firing on all cylinders, and that’s not even taking into account the lyrics, which circle back to the existential dread that the album opened with, describing a man on the precipice of a dark, empty abyss, with his partner lying beside him in bed but feeling incredibly cold and distant, as if he’s so far off in his own world that she might as well just push him over the edge and be done with is. This is already an unnerving concept, made even more terrifying by what I’ll ironically call a “happy accident” that occurred during its recording – the tape machine that they were using broke, and they liked the effect when they played it back and it cut off abruptly just as the guitar solo was reaching its apex, so they kept it that way. The effect is still quite startling, even when I know it’s coming, because it gets louder for that last split second before it abruptly cuts off, a deliberate subversion of my expectation from the last few songs that we’ll continue to have smooth segues between each of them. I go back and forth on whether this track, “I Will Possess Your Heart”, or “No Sunlight” is my favorite track on the album, but usually I’m inclined to go with this one because it feels like more of a dark horse pick.
Grade: A+

11. The Ice Is Getting Thinner
We end the album at the bottom of that cold, lonely abyss – and yes, it does turn out to have a bottom. While this is a cold, isolated, and despairing song depicting the end of a relationship, it also contains the vaguest hint that our protagonist might find his way out of the crisis he’s been going through, because he’s finally found the courage to admit that there’s no foundation for the two of them to build off of – they’re on such thin ice that it’s bound to crack and send them to their frigid deaths if they don’t cut their losses and get out now. That admission leads to an incredibly sad ending, but to me it kind of feels like the bottom that you need to hit in order to rebound from a personal tragedy. At least now the worst is over, and you might start to find your way back to where you can see a glimmer of sunlight from the surface. Musically, this song is appropriately sparse, with only slow electric guitar chords and a brief, mournful solo in the bridge section. It has an emotional character similar to The Edge‘s solo from U2‘s “Love Is Blindness”, though I’m not going to say there’s any sonic similarity; I’m just thinking of the impact it has, coming in the middle of such a cold, anguished closing track. I know I complained earlier about “Talking Bird” being slow and sparse when arguably this track is even more so, and the sudden shift in volume and tempo from “Pity and Fear” to this track is even more jarring than that one coming after “Cath…”, but I think part of the reason why I like this one more is because the rhythm section is completely absent, rather than reinforcing a plodding slow rhythm. It’s got a consistent tempo, but only the barest minimum of instrumental colors is needed to sketch it in. And the effect of that sudden tonal shift is incredibly disquieting. For a record with a lot of deliciously dense performances, this one manages to be compelling due to its savvy decision to not fill in the empty space.
Grade: B

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Bixby Canyon Bridge $1.50
I Will Possess Your Heart $2
No Sunlight $2
Cath… $1.75
Talking Bird -$.50
You Can Do Better than Me $.50
Grapevine Fires $1.25
Your New Twin Sized Bed $1
Long Division $1.50
Pity and Fear $2
The Ice Is Getting Thinner $1
TOTAL: $14

BAND MEMBERS:
Ben Gibbard: Lead vocals, rhythm guitar, piano, keyboards, drums, drum machine
Chris Walla: Lead guitar, audio sequencer, backing vocals, piano, keyboards
Nick Harmer: Bass, backing vocals
Jason McGerr: Drums, percussion

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:

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

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