When Death Cab For Cutie broke through in 2003 with Transatlanticism, many suspected that it was really because of the amazing success singer/frontman Benjamin Gibbard had that same year with his side-project, The Postal Service, whose Give Up virtually introduced the wider world to indietronica. Yet major label releases Plans, Narrow Stairs (QRO review), and Open Door EP (QRO review) all were successes, both musically and commercially – while it’s all but assured that there will never be another Postal Service record. But for Codes and Keys, Death Cab swerves towards that indietronica over guitars, and embraces a brighter view.
The brighter view should actually come as little of a surprise, as it was presaged in Open Door, and marrying actress/singer Zooey Deschanel (of 500 Days of Summer/She & Him – QRO live review) can lift even an indie-rock songwriter’s spirits. And it’s not a bad turn of outlook, as it marries well to the wistfulness of “Some Boys” or the more ‘regular’ Death Cab of first single “You Are a Tourist”. The ‘up anthem’ nature of “Portable Television” is a bit too lightweight for the shine, but it’s done better on the following “Underneath the Sycamore”. And the cheery acoustic strum finisher “Stay Young, Go Dancing” has an enjoyable nature that overwhelms the too-cheery aspect.
The indietronic shift is most pronounced on the also-bright “Monday Morning”, with a backbeat that is actually classic Death Cab or Postal. Sometimes the style can drain a bit of life from a song: opener “Home Is a Fire” isn’t a standout (and not the best choice for latest single), while the darker push of “Doors Unlocked and Open” lacks some color. But “St. Peter’s Cathedral” is a sad and subdued piece that grows into an epic and effective one.
Just as Gibbard could have made a mint off a second Postal Service record that treaded the same ground as the first, Death Cab could have stuck to the same formula that got them onto Atlantic Records and has worked so well, both critically and commercially, since then. They also could have taken that acclaim as proof that they’re good enough to radically change their sound. Instead, the band wisely shifted into newer terrain that they can also do, and can also work. It might take a bit of getting used to for hard-core Death Cabbies, but Codes and Keys is yet another strong album from a consistently strong band.