Thus far, Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard has been the patron saint of pining, the posterboy for every yearning, Seth Cohen-styled weenie with bruised heart or wounded pride. On albums like 2003's Transatlanticism —a chronicle of restless yearning whose titular neologism soon became enshrined in the popular lexicon— Gibbard was an over-sensitive, lyric-sheet-reading, shaggy-hair'd boys' best friend; going to great songwritten lengths to convey the vastness of his romanticised longing.
Yet, on Narrow Stairs, the sixth LP-proper for the long-running Seattle quartet, Gibbard trades his woe-ish prose for blunt confessions, unafraid of coming off as a jerk as he deals in the darker side of male desire. This begins with single "I Will Possess Your Heart," where 'unrequited love' fuels egotistical obsession. Gibbard forsakes his lovelorned lyrics for words rather resembling the ramblings of a stalker. There's something intensely sinister about the way the frontman places forceful emphasis in "got" when he earnestly intones "you got to spend some time with me", and, as the band rides an unending motorik rhythm into a krautrock-inspired night, Gibbard chants the song's title like a creepy attempt at a self-fulfilling mantra.
After the corporate-compliance of Death Cab's meek major-label debut, 2005's Plans, basing an album around an eight-minute ode-to-stalking is a statement unto itself. The sheer recalcitrance of such a move neatly captures Narrow Stairs' restless mood; the Death Cab for Cutie on this disc anything but a band satisfied with their stature. The record is built on raw, rhythmic, almost-rockin' songs, the combo sounding far more like four-man unit than a soulful singer and his assorted helpers. String sections, backing-vox posses, and manifold multi-track arrangements are notable in their absence.
The Thematic Point
To go with the reined-in musical palette, Gibbard's lyrics are more brutally direct than ever before. It begins with opener "Bixby Canyon Bridge," where his Kerouac-inspired pilgrimage to Big Sur breeds more disappointment than inspiration ("I cursed myself for being surprised/That this didn't play like it did in my mind"). Elsewhere, the vocalist pulls no punches; lines like "Sometimes you get confused/Like there's a hint that I'm trying to give you" and "We stay together out of fear/Of dying alone" coming across as if he's pronouncing last rites on a dying relationship he's not man enough to end.
At times Narrow Stairs does veer off course —a Pet Sounds knock-off here, a cosmic tabla jam there— but mostly it keeps both music and lyrics direct, forever hammering its thematic point home. Where the band may've once built entire albums around Gibbard's romanticism (or, indeed, his Transatlanticism), now it seems the romantic in him has died. The result is a leaner, meaner Death Cab.
Record Label: Atlantic
Release Date: 13 May 2008