I’ve had the album for a solid day now so I’ll take a crack at “reviewing it”. I’ve toyed with the idea that Death Cab for Cutie had replaced The Cure and U2 as my favorite band (Jimmy Buffett and Jack Johnson fall into a different category) for the last few years; truth be told, the music they are putting out now is better than what the Cure is producing, but as a whole body of work The Cure’s stuff still holds that #1 spot in my heart. That said, it’s obvious that I love this band. I simply could not wait for Narrow Stairs. I wanted to feel melancholy, desperate, and just plain hopeless for 45 minutes!
I’ve listened to the album nearly 10 times already. There’s a reason I’ve obsessed over it. The first two spins of the disc I was horrified to learn that I wasn’t liking what I was hearing. How could this be? I love me some DCFC and all things Ben Gibbard. Narrow Stairs felt hollow and heartless compared to the huge sound of Plans and the mastery of Transatlanticism. Subsequent spins of the new disc started to reveal the truth to me. This was DCFC’s intentions all along. It’s meant to feel “smaller” and more clausterphobic. DCFC’s previous two releases, especially Plans, despite their usual DCFC melancholy felt large enough to stretch out and breath…providing some sense of hope that the loss, regret, and broken dreams of Gibbard’s stories might someday get better…that the characters within might at least be okay in the end…even with broken hearts. Narrow Stairs despite it’s uptempo songs offers no such hope.
On Narrow Stairs Gibbard and band mates leave the listener feeling completely hopeless that all will work out. And THAT is exactly what fans of this band want, myself included. Gibbard illuminates the feelings we all have about things from our past and the realities of becoming an adult. Narrow Stairs is masterful in that sense. Highlights include such heart warming tunes as: “Cath…” – a song about a girl who settles for a man who’ll never make her happy, “You Can Do Better Than Me” – an upbeat tune about a man who stays in a loveless relationship for fear of dying alone. ” “Cath…” also holds the best lyric of the album: As the flash bulbs burst she holds a smile like someone would hold a crying a child. I could go on, but you get the idea; Ben Gibbard is still exploring the waters he knows best and it feels comfortable, familiar, and desperate. He takes the easy way out a couple of times with cliches that seem below his level of song writing prowess on “Your New Twin Size Bed” and “The Ice Is Getting Thinner”. They’re great songs, but just feel too easy for Ben. “I Will Possess Your Heart”, the albums first single, should have been the opening track or even the closing track of the album with it’s 4 minutes plus baseline intro. It feels awkward as the second track. There are a couple of rockers on the album as well – albeit – rockers with typical Gibbaresque lyrics: “Long Division” and “Pity and Fear”. Both make your head bob and toe tap.
All in all Narrow Stairs is yet another stroke of genius from Death Cab for Cutie. Expect something closer to their pre-Transatlanticism work and you won’t be disappointed. It’s still too soon to say where Narrow Stairs falls in order of Death Cab’s work overall, but it’s definately strong.