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Death Cab for Cutie occupies an interesting spot in the musical world from my own perspective; I've seen people called hipsters for liking them, people rejected as hipsters for liking them, people who nudge me in the ribs expecting mutual loathing or eye-rolling, and people afraid to admit to me that they like them. I still can't quite figure out what the place is, but I'm appreciative that it doesn't seem to have much of an effect on Gibbard, Walla and crew. The name of the band and the "indie" association kept me away for some years less out of assumptions about what liking them would mean than about my impressions of what taste I had for things deemed "indie" (some years ago, I deliberately delved into some of the biggest bands--Guided by Voices, Pavement, etc--and found myself uninterested, and was not swayed by most examples brought to me personally, either, though my opinion has since changed, including on those specific bands). Still, Narrow Stairs showed up as a promotional copy at my then-employer (Borders again!) and I thought I'd give it a shot. If I recall correctly, someone had actually suggested the single "I Will Possess Your Heart" to me, without my knowing a thing about it, but someone whose recommendations I tend to take pretty seriously (as she is a longtime fan of At the Drive-In, amongst other things).
Around the third minute of that single, I found myself quite in love, and it only grew as the album went on, eventually dominating a lot of my listening for the rest of the year it was released, and even sometime thereafter. When The Open Door, its companion EP, was released, it only got worse--until, eventually, I found my collection (nearly) complete (at time of writing, I effectively lack the Codes and Keys remix album, and not much more, having finally acquired both the The John Byrd EP and The Stability EP). I did eventually discover that "I Will Possess Your Heart" was not that uncharacteristically long for the band as a whole, but still an odd choice as a single in light of that fact about it, as the only two other normal studio tracks in that kind of clearly-beyond-most-singles length are the title track from Transatlanticism and the last also-title track from the aforementioned (and, as a modern EP, often ignored) The Stability EP (for curiosity's sake, it actually follows a cover of Björk's "All Is Full of Love", emphasizing the "We will do what we want" attitude EPs and B-sides often carry).
I was out perusing a used CD store when I decided to check their vinyl out on a whim (used vinyl can be exhausting--which can make it more rewarding, but it's a bigger dice roll with the sheer volume of re-sold random stuff that is hard to gauge, or is from the glut of popular albums now abandoned simply for format reasons. I saw Narrow Stairs and, while it was a bit higher than I would normally go for a used record, the fact that it was an album I like this much made me snap it up anyway (after a bit of quick phone-based confirmation that I wasn't just going to be getting ripped off--which I apparently wasn't).
While the knowledge is not necessary (I started without it!), "Bixby Canyon Bridge" is, perhaps obviously to fans, actually about Ben Gibbard's attempts to connect with the spirit of Jack Kerouac, for whom he would later collaboratively work out an album's worth of songs with Jay Farrar (of Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt) titled One Fast Move or I'm Gone, which is based on Big Sur. It's a good choice for an introduction, as it seemingly wavers into existence, Gibbard's voice clear as he describes his experience of traveling to the actual Big Sur, referring to it as "the place where your soul had died", in reference to Kerouac himself. When he finds that nothing is happening, he sings "I curse myself for being surprised/That this didn't play like it did in my mind". Throbbing bass, firm, insistent drums, and crunchy monotone guitars announce the shift in topic to Gibbard's own life: "And I want to know my fate/If I keep up this way". The song builds to a cluttered drone, vocals blurring into guitars until where one ends and the next begins is unclear. It climbs and clusters into a dissipating wash, and Gibbard's voice returns: "And then it started getting dark/I trudged back to where the car was parked/No closer to any kind of truth/As I must assume was the case with you."
I don't know that there's any sense in which a single could be "surprising" these days without simply being a refusal to submit to anything, at which point the question arises as to whether the only real goal was to be, well, surprising. Despite that, "I Will Possess Your Heart" still manages a significant degree of surprise. While it was edited down to a much briefer four minutes for radio play, its album version is over eight minutes long, and at first appears to be a very clear instrumental. Nick Harmer keeps a slinky bassline in line over an easy beat from Jason McGerr that increases in confidence ever so subtly as the song continues. Gibbard intermittently drops a somewhat discomforting descending piano line, and Chris Walla's guitars waft across the track largely on waves of sustained sound, with intermittent new chords. It's a great groove, but there's something a little uneasy in it, something a bit off--and it becomes clear when Gibbard's lyrics come in. Some have tried to argue (rather inexplicably) that a song with words like "There are times when outside your window/I see my reflection as I slowly pass/How I long for this mirrored perspective/When we'll be lovers, lovers at least", and "You reject my advances/And desperate pleas/I won't let you/Let me down/So easily" and somehow believe it could be about anything but unhealthy obsession and selfish desire for another. Of course--we've seen it established that songs about uncomfortably attached persons can be quite good (cf. "Every Breath You Take"), so long as they accurately marry that sensibility to a more cheerful and appealing melody. "I Will Posses Your Heart" may be the perfection of this, as it actually manages to sneak in the disturbing elements, mostly through Gibbard's keys, while not losing the catchy and appealing nature of the whole song.
There are a handful of songs on the album that feel...not quite right to me, despite my love of the whole. "No Sunlight" is the first of these. It feels perhaps too bright--musically, not lyrically--after the darkened corners of "I Will Possess Your Heart", but it's actually a furthering of that mistaken, mismatched emotional theme of the album's entirety. Harmer's bass is warm and round, McGerr's drums are steady--upbeat, even, and Walla's sliding (not slide) guitar lines are catchy and give a nice flavour that always lets me happily hear the song anyway. It's not a bad song, not even an entirely inappropriate one, it just feels less interconnected as compared to the rest of the album. Gibbard describes a sunny youth that turns to something else: "With every year that came to pass/More clouds appeared/Till the sky went black/And there was no sunlight, no sunlight/And there was no sunlight, no sunlight...anymore" and clarifies the seeming literal nature of the lyrics to this point in the chorus, which is deceptively energetic: "It disappeared at the same speed/The idealistic things I believed/And the optimist died inside of me". The way he and backing vocals from Harmer and Walla cheerfully sing "No sunlight" is one of those great examples of dark lyrics and catchy music juxtaposed, which basically completes my forgiveness for the song, even if I look far more forward to the track that follows.
I'm not going to pretend I got the literary reference of "Cath..." anymore than I got the Kerouac meaning that lay under "Bixby Canyon Bridge", but it does help to illuminate Gibbard's lyrics all the same. "Cath..." could easily be finished out as "...erine Earnshaw", as in Brontë's Wuthering Heights, though the object of the song seems more to place a segment of that story into the context of reality, and Ben's reaction to a real-life "Cath" going through a vaguely similar situation. It has one of the best almost-cold opens of the album: a few muted strums set the stage for a dramatic and big, lonely but warm, arcing guitar from Walla which is joined by another guitar (Gibbard) to sort of mumble back to itself afterward, but then freeze at a certain volume and rattle off a few notes. McGerr's drums really build the song up, determined and firm beats that shift focus readily to maintain the peaks and valleys of the melody, which moves like a speedboat bobbing over its own wake. Ben's voice is short, sharp--describing "Cath..." in position: "Cath.../She stands/With a well-intentioned man/But she can't relax/With his hand on the small of her back/As the flash bulbs burst/She holds a smile/Like someone would hold/A crying child". Already it's clear what he thinks of Cath: there's sympathy in his description, even as it is largely just that--a description. In the chorus he references the voices of gossip that will follow this hasty and un-felt marriage, and answers for her with continued sympathy though a continued detachment of omniscent description. The song eases for the moments in which he speaks of the definitive point of her choice--that of marriage vows--Walla's guitar dainty and delicate as it lifts itself behind Gibbard's voice. And then he takes the gossips to task, drawing a parallel to his own expressed cause for Cath's actions: "But if their hearts were dying that fast/They'd've done the same as you", and then he admits his reasons for sympathy, and explains why he cannot criticize or gossip himself: "And I'd've done the same as you".
"Talking Bird" is one of three songs (the others are "The Ice Is Getting Thinner" and "No Sunlight") released as demos in various places surrounding the album--the other two were on a bonus 7" with some pressings of the 12" (not mine, alas), while the demo for this song was actually the last track on the Open Door EP, played by Gibbard alone with a ukulele (!), but appears here in its more complete form. It's still a very knowingly slight song. A patiently thrumming bassline from Harmer goes on at a pace that somehow avoids to push the song as fast as itself, while McGerr's heavily spaced drumbeats confirm the pacing. Walla's guitars pick and strum rather intermittently. Even at their most expansive, occupying largely the bottom end and staying slow. It may be the most fragile song, coaxing a bird (in the literal sense, but referring to a love, of course) to choose a path of its own, admitting "the windows were open the whole time", but continuing that "it's all there for you, as long as you choose to stay".
The brave, cheerful organ and martial drumming that starts "You Can Do Better Than Me" sounds nothing like the title, nor its own subject matter. The keys throughout give it the feeling of a kind of march, though a summer-y one. Gibbard slips in some real lyrical corkers: "I've been slipping through the years/And my old clothes don't fit like/They once did/So they hang like ghosts/Of the people I've been." His voice slides up into falsetto with a kind of nervy energy falsetto often bestows--as if the raw reality of the feelings he's expressing are hitting home as he finishes thoughts, and sometimes just as if it's the best way to hold the notes. But the song is raw, and it makes that clear from the opening line: "I'm starting to feel/We stay together out of fear/Of dying alone". There's a balance, a mutual "fault" or failure at play, but then he sings that he has "to face the truth/That no one could ever look at me/Like you do/Like I'm something worth/Holding onto", continuing his confidence and equal ground as he sings, "There's times I think of leaving/But it's something I'll never do", and the confident march of the song is left with the sustained organ chord that matched his last word, and only a piano follows him through the last lines, vulnerable, sincere, and yet flat with expression of perceived fact: "'Cause you can do better than me/But I can't do better than you."
"Grapevine Fires" is perhaps the first song to describe a standing relationship instead of a desired one, an ending one, or a broken one, though it turns its darkened focus instead to the fires that actually burnt a chunk of California down in 2007. McGerr's spiky-but-relaxed drum beat fades the song into place, where Ben's voice and electronic keys keep it cool and sad. Walla and Harmer lay in beautiful, smooth backing vocals to Ben's distinct voice, with now intermittent guitar but primarily a second set of keys laying out the backing for a song that matches the seemingly eased relationship with a mother of one against the background of both the fires, and the "cemetery on a hill" that they choose to observe the fires from--her daughter "laugh[s] and dance[s] in the field of graves", and is crystallized as he finally adds: "But I couldn't think/Of anywhere I would've rather been/To watch it all burn away/Burn away". It may be, tonally, one of the saddest songs on the album, a sort of downbeat, downcast feeling to the guitar and keys themselves, the latter of which is somewhat uncertain in its emphasis.
Probably my favourite track on the album for its sliding guitar hook and its rim-based drumming style, we are now at "Your New Twin Sized Bed". It's catchy as all get-out (inexplicably, never a single!) and easy-going, the depressing subject matter perched precariously on a downbeat tune with a certain hopeful element in it, as well as a comfortable feeling to the music itself. As Ben has said, though, it's a song about "throwing in the towel", and continues to address the album's ideas of dissolution and disillusionment in a method that is almost metaphorical, but, in the end, isn't necessarily: "You look so defeated/Lying there in your new twin sized bed/With a single pillow/Underneath your single head/I guess you decided/That that old queen was more space than you would need/Now it's the alley behind your apartment with a sign that says 'free'/And that I hope you have more luck with it than me". It's a defeated song, both lyrically and musically, but it is still alive all the same, in both cases, but especially musically--it's self-rationalization ("But what's the point of holding on to what never gets used?/Other than a sick desire for self abuse"), but it doesn't keep the actions from seeming worrisome to an observer. Walla rescues this with his guitar's hook, which Harmer perfectly counters with a bassline that echoes and rearranges the same feel.
If the album has a climax, it's definitely "Long Division". The thumping bassline that rises up alongside a similarly uptempo drumbeat is cut short in its energy by the more relaxed and clear cut notes from Walla's guitar, Gibbard's voice similarly at ease, though they all suddenly rush along in a preview of the chorus: "Oh-ho-ho/Once it would start it was harder to tell them apart/Oh-ho-ho". Gibbard describes first the man in the relationship, ending with a chorus that describes the man's goal: "Cause he had sworn/Not to be what he'd been before/to be a remain- remain- remain- remainder". And then he describes the viewpoint of the woman in the same relationship, unaware of his personal oath, and instead hurt as "She said she'd never envisioned/Him the type of person/Capable of such deceit". And so we shift to a less internal solution: "And they carried on like/Long division/As it was clear with every page/Oh, that they were/Further away/From a solution that would play/Without a remain- remain- remain- remainder..." The sudden bursts of energy in the chorus are infectious and engaging, with the last instance unable to be slowed in its thundering burst through the song, which is channeled into rapid strums of the guitar that run closer and closer together, riding higher and higher up the neck. It charges onward and ever-forward, finally resting on the half-repetitions of the title song's object before holding and casually clearing out the last of the album's upbeat energy.
It's cold, hovering electronics, and light hand-drumming behind sharpened, squared off guitar licks in "Pity and Fear". Gibbard expresses envy of "the stranger lying next to [him]/Who awakes in the night/And slips out into the predawn light/No words, clean escape/No promises or messes made/And chalks it all up/To mistake, mistake, mistake". It does shift into an uptempo beat, but with the continued sense of vast distance and coldness, the gaping distance between two people drawn so entirely apart. It builds to a stronger sound as Walla's guitar takes on distorted chords and McGerr's drums push harder (these drums played with sticks), until the song builds up to reverberating manipulations of distortion and then--an abrupt end, as the tape, apparently ran out and they appreciated the sound enough to leave it.
"The Ice Is Getting Thinner" takes that cold spaciousness and exaggerates it to the extreme: just enough echo on Ben's voice to imply a cavernous solitude, and guitars that are, at their loudest, casual, slow, and low-slung, patient and sad. There is a repeating lick of brighter notes faint in the background, but it is lost to steady organ-style keys. Walla's solo is affected in a fashion similar to Gibbard's voice, distant, isolated and mournful, strangely flat and off to a side. It all rests on a single note that holds and fades to nothing.
Ben Gibbard has apparently stated that he never wants to go any lower (as in darker) than this album, and it's not difficult to see why he might draw the line here--this is not a cheerful album. It's a bit of a shift away from its predecessor (Plans, two years earlier) in its reluctance to stick to a single style or sound, as well as its relentlessly downbeat subject matter: effectively every song is about mismatched emotional "frequencies" and falling out of sync, whether it's with a lover or the world as a whole, as it is in "Grapevine Fires" or "Bixby Canyon Bridge". "Your New Twin Sized Bed" may be definitively about "throwing in the towel", but a lot of the album is about that in other ways as well.
Despite all that, it's stupendously catchy and just damned good.
I once had someone wander into Borders when I was working and tell me they hadn't listened to any new music in decades, that they liked the biggies from way back when--the Beatles, the Stones, etc--and they wanted a recommendation. I happened to be in the middle of my love for this album and suggested it--I admit, sometimes I throw things out not being entirely sure how they will come off, as most people have more selective ranges of sound that they appreciate. But this person came back and told me they loved this album. A few other customers gave their approval when I'd throw it on our overhead stereo system when I was spending the night closing--an action quietly justified by the fact that we did continue to carry it for sale, even as I played it an awful lot.
As much as I may like an awful lot of music, I don't always get anything quite so "stuck" as this, making it a perfect indicator of what it means when I very consciously choose to pick an album up on vinyl or CD following an existing purchase of the other format. That applies to a good sized portion of the non-super-cheap-used vinyl I own, of course, especially those titles which are not "classics". Once in a while, the idea (or coloured vinyl, or circumstances) will push other titles in without as much force, but this was one that needed no trickery to leap into my hands and onto my shelf. It does actually have a die-cut sleeve (that is, there are windows cut into the outer sleeve, through which the inner sleeve shows--though it's not a Physical Graffiti effect, or anything), but I didn't realized that until I opened it and had already decided on acquiring it.
I already noted that their reputation can make this a very hedged bet sort of situation--perhaps my taste drops in your estimation on reading this, perhaps you reconsider a band you previously avoided (as I did). Or, perhaps you nod sagely and wonder what took me so long. Or maybe none of these. Still, I strongly encourage the reluctant to give this album in particular a chance, even if none of their others.
- Next Up: Decapitated - Winds of Creation