In the world of Death Cab For Cutie fans, there are those who were swept up by the 2005 hit “Plans” and may or may not have picked up the band’s 2008 follow-up, “Narrow Stairs”; those who, early in the decade, soul-searched in the equally dark and wondrous mire of “Transatlanticism” or found a comforting balance of solemn reflection and measured prospection in “The Photo Album”; and those who fell for the boys from Bellingham when they first dissected yearning hearts into dark chords and crooning vocals in “Something About Airplanes” and “We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes.”
While it might be tempting to construct some hierarchy of fandom among these groups, in reality they represent the many ways in which people have connected to a dynamic band over the last 13 years. Death Cab’s seventh studio album, “Codes and Keys,” will likely evoke slightly different reactions from different fans when it’s released on May 31. But at its core, it presents something for everyone, and it does so in the most mature — and heartwarming — fashion to date.
Ever since a smiling Ben Gibbard hopped on stage at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall in February flashing a wedding ring from actress and singer Zooey Deschanel, expectations for “Codes and Keys” swung away from the bleak sounds of “Narrow Stairs” and toward some bright, unknown potential that lingered for months. But the band’s latest release is not just some happiness-fest. Rather, its 11 tracks comprise a thoughtful presentation whose layers grow richer and more complex from beginning to end.
In the title track, an upbeat piano line dances atop eager drums while, in a paradox of mood, Gibbard’s yearning vocals describe a relationship thinning with every word. But by the end of the track, the paradox is resolved with the realization that, unlike in the past, when we might have expected Gibbard to succumb to the pains of being without the one he loves, in this album a cautious sense of confidence pervades and ultimately prevails. “Like a child throwing stones at the sky,” love inevitably falls back to earth, and, despite the occasional temptation to lock our emotions behind codes and keys, ultimately “We are one/We are alive.”
The theme that it’s okay to love is repeated throughout the album, wrapped in upbeat melodies by bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr and topped with atmospheric touches by guitarist and producer Chris Walla. Still carrying a weighty theme, the up-tempo melodic packages reflect Death Cab’s maturity as artists. They no longer need to rely on somber tones, such as those of “Transatlanticism,” to reveal somber tales of lost and unrequited loves. “When there’s a burning in your heart… Build it bigger than the sun… Don’t be alarmed,” Gibbard sings reassuringly in the snappy “You Are A Tourist.” In the infectiously upbeat “Monday Morning,” he convinces his love that, while time removes “the glow of youth,” their love burns on inside of them. And in the roiling “Doors Unlocked and Open,” Gibbard urges love to live freely without closed doors.
The parallels between the shift in Death Cab’s sound and the transformations in Gibbard’s personal life are strong, to say the least. Following the release of “Narrow Stairs,” the singer-songwriter married Deschanel, his sweetheart, and began running marathons for charity. This month, he revealed to SPIN Magazine that he also overcame a serious drinking problem that was encouraged in part by the “self-destructive” act of writing songs for the band’s earlier albums. In one of those albums, Gibbard sang a slew of reasons not to live in Los Angeles. Yet today, he and Deschanel have settled in the “belly of the beast,” where, in “Stay Young, Go Dancing,” Gibbard proclaims: “Life is sweet… Because when she sings, I hear a symphony.”
To the casual listener, “Codes and Keys” offers a meaningful search for the ephemeral comfort of home — another theme of several tracks — and lessons in retaining the precious comforts of love. But for fans who have followed Death Cab through the twists and turns of their and the band members’ lives, we find a fascinating new path in a 13-year journey — a path on which “Codes and Keys” advises us to embark with cautious optimism for both life and love.
In “St. Peter’s Cathedral,” the album’s epic penultimate track, Gibbard’s soaring vocals carry the line: “It’s either quite a master plan or just chemicals that help us understand that when our hearts stop ticking, this is the end and there’s nothing past this.” Let’s hope this isn’t the end for Death Cab For Cutie.