Indie-rock all-stars Death Cab for Cutie return stronger than ever with their second major-label release, Narrow Stairs. After producing a strong body of work on indie imprint Barsuk, the Washington State band jumped to Atlantic Records in 2004. Defying the usual predictions of ‘selling out’, Death Cab brought out a great major-label debut, Plans, the following year. And now, after all the success that Plans brought them (Saturday Night Live, Grammy nomination), the band stays top-flight, while adding some new steps, on Narrow Stairs.
The record opens on a high note with probably its three best tracks, “Bixby Canyon Bridge”, “I Will Possess Your Heart”, and “No Sunlight”. Full of literary references to Jack Kerouac (Death Cab singer/guitarist Ben Gibbard’s favorite author), “Bixby” is a great piece of high indie-rock with a light touch, like the usual Death Cab, but a guitar grind attack in the middle adds some extra flavor. First single “I Will Possess Your Heart” could be ‘just another Death Cab single’ (its title is unfortunately a little too similar to their last single, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”), but a driving, yet not over-the-top bass line build at the start goes on for a while, increasing the anticipation, and the rest of the song is stronger for it. “No Sunlight” is high and uplifting, but Gibbard still adds a knowing touch and indie-rock elements still seep in.
After that top-notch one-two-three, Narrow Stairs was bound to slip a little. The pressing follower “Cath…” is good, but not as great as the first three, and the slower, more heartfelt “Talking Bird” is nice, but a little boring. The rest of the album isn’t weak by any means, and there are no real ‘skippable’ tracks, but perhaps only the catchy, tuneful ditty “Your New Twin Sized Bed” matches up to the first three pieces.
After the great reception of Plans, Death Cab were bound to feel upbeat, and that nature does come through in an uplift which permeates Narrow Stairs. “You Can Do Better Than Me” is sort of an ‘uplifting marching band’ piece, and even the relatively downbeat subject of “Grapevine Fires” (the 2007 California wildfires) can’t prevent it from being carrying and evocative. The penultimate “Pity and Fear” has some interesting pseudo-jungle drumming behind its bigger and bigger ethos, while the preceding “Long Division” is easily the most ‘rock’ track on the record, with Death Cab even going anthemistic. Only finisher “The Ice Is Getting Thinner” really harkens towards darker days, in its slow-mo, quiet, restraint.
Some long-time Death Cab ‘loyalists’ may not immediately take to the sunnier nature of Narrow Stairs (they’re the same sorts who haven’t liked Gibbard since the stupendous success of his side project, The Postal Service, and will say guitarist Chris Walla’s recent solo record, Field Manual – QRO review – is better simply because he released it back on Barsuk). The album, and especially Gibbard’s lyrics, is more straight-up this time around, but that only lets its various aspects shine brighter, not lost under a layer of fuzz. Death Cab for Cutie had already proved that they could make the major-label jump without losing a step; now, they’re just stepping up, and up, and up…