On the Record: “Codes and Keys” by Death Cab for Cutie

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September 8, 2011

10:43 PM

“If you feel just like a tourist in the city you were born, then it’s time to go.” “You Are a Tourist,” the first single from Death Cab For Cutie’s newest release, “Codes and Keys”, explores the dynamics of escaping a failing relationship and starting anew, a theme that recurs throughout the album.

This song, distinguished by its wispy, catchy melody and celestial instrumentation, helped propel “Codes and Keys” to the third spot on Billboard’s Top 200.

The album is a significant departure from Death Cab’s previous works. From a lyrical standpoint we find Ben Gibbard, the band’s front man and main songwriter, relinquishing the morose reflections of “Narrow Stairs” and “Plans” in favor of a somewhat more optimistic outlook. Whether this change has something to do with his recent marriage to actress Zooey Deschanel is up for interpretation.

The opening number, “Home Is a Fire,” swirls from headphone to headphone, combining spacey vocals, heavy synth blips and a drum track that evokes images of falling rain. The title track continues in much the same way, frequently building up to stormy crescendos of strings, keyboard sounds and sonic fireworks.

“Some Boys” and “Doors Unlocked and Open” follow seamlessly, blending Gibbard’s haunting, isolated vocals with old-timey piano riffs. Lyrically, the first half of the album deals with the impending end of a relationship and the fear associated with its conclusion. “Home Is a Fire” and “Codes and Keys” exude doubt and worry, while “Doors Unlocked and Open” and “You Are a Tourist” express hope for a meaningful resolution and rebirth.

“Unobstructed Views” marks a turning point in the album’s trajectory. The song itself slows things down a bit too much and is overwrought with ambient effects, but serves to demonstrate Gibbard’s change of heart. He muses “There’s no one in the sky, just our love.” It seems that although the brooding songwriter has retained the existential angst evident in his previous releases, he has finally found a more precise way to release his angst.

“Codes and Keys” blends the nostalgic and the post-modern to form a 21st century love story and is masterfully devoid of schmaltz or self-pity. Songs like “Monday Morning” and “Portable Television” sound organic, yet have the tightly polished production of mainstream rock hits.

The album’s two best tracks, “Underneath the Sycamore” and “Stay Young, Go Dancing,” are also its most upbeat. In the former, Gibbard weaves a tale of two eager lovers who have finally found peace in one another over echoing swells and piano riffs. The latter would be totally out of place on any previous Death Cab release, with a summery acoustic guitar riff, delicate piano tinkering and a downright joyous vocal line.

“Codes and Keys” is not without its missteps. Its flow is often bogged down by excessive atmospherics, and many of its songs lack the catchiness of Death Cab staples like “Cath” or “Title and Registration.” Still the album clearly exemplifies a new step in the band’s evolution, a sort of settling both musically and lyrically. Indie’s darlings have matured and found peace, yet can still craft thoroughly impressive tunes.

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