Thursday, June 09, 2011

Death Cab: Codes and Keys

Back in 2001, when all the cool kids were listening to The Photo Album, there are plenty of ways you could have described Death Cab.  "Overproduced" would not have been one of them; frankly, it would have been laughable.  Something About Airplanes (1998) and We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes (2000) seriously sound like they were recorded in Chris Walla's linen closet, and The Photo Album isn't much cleaner.  Even Transatlanticism (2003), an album that I adore, has its less-than-crystal-clear moments.

It wasn't until Plans in 2005 that Death Cab produced an album that sounded fully put-together (not coincidentally, Plans was their major-label debut).  Narrow Stairs (2008) definitely represented a leap forward in production value, but (after some getting used to) it still sounded like Death Cab.

That's why so much of Codes and Keys is so surprising.  It's not that it doesn't sound like Death Cab--it does, even though you might have to take a careful look to find it, especially with the conspicuous absence of Mr. Walla's guitar.  Instead, it's surprising because there's production at every turn, sometimes to the album's detriment.  At times, Ben Gibbard's voice sounds muffled ("Home is a Fire"), scratchy ("Some Boys"), underwater ("Doors Unlocked and Open"), or echo-y ("Unobstructed Views," "Portable Television," and about half of the album).

The natural question is why?  Ben Gibbard has a fine voice--and that doesn't do him justice; he has an excellent voice--so just let him sing!  You mix a questionable whiskey with coke to make it drinkable; mixing a 21-year single-malt with anything is a disastrous waste.  Maybe the argument is "we've had the same single-malt for the last fifteen years, and we wanted a new flavor this time around."  And Death Cab is at the point in their musical career where experimentation for the sake of experimentation is totally acceptable.  But they're also sufficiently accomplished musicians that they ought to know when an experiment has failed.  Intentionally obscuring Ben Gibbard's voice fails more often than not, and for that matter, so does removing virtually all of the guitar hooks.

But the change in musical style is only one of two tonal shifts that differentiate Codes and Keys from Death Cab's earlier work.  The other, equally important one is a change in subject matter.  For the first time, the driving emotion behind Death Cab's music is "happy".  Back when Ben Gibbard was still making music with The Postal Service, he once described "Such Great Heights" as the only positive song about love he'd ever written.  If he didn't change his tune after the if-not-joyous-then-at-least-longingly-hopeful Transatlanticism and Plans, then he sure has some explaining to do now.

Even the song titles reflect the album's sunnier mood: half the songs on here suggest removed obstacles ("Doors Unlocked And Open," "Unobstructed Views") or unbridled enthusiasm ("Stay Young, Go Dancing").  These sentiments would have been jarringly out of place on Death Cab's earlier albums, and they're not without their detractors here.  One particularly skeptical commenter on NPR's review of the album said it was like "a Death Cab album with the soul sucked out."

In reality, Codes and Keys plays out more like a Death Cab album with an extra piece of soul added in, one that Ben Gibbard didn't know he had until he married Zooey Deschanel.  While Death Cab had has success with happy-sounding sad songs ("The Sound of Settling"), it's played out by now.  They had their flirtation with angry-sounding angry songs ("I Will Possess Your Heart"), and that worked fine for a while.  Now that Ben Gibbard finally has a reason to expand his emotional spectrum to include happy songs, we as fans should be equally happy for him.

Currently listening: "Dawn of Time," Christie DuPree

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