At some point, I’m going to have to stop comparing every Death Cab for Cutie album to Plans.
It’s difficult for me, though. I liked Death Cab before their 2005 masterpiece, and I’ve liked them after it as well. But no album they’ve made affects me like that one does. A full-blooded meditation on death and the distances that keep us alone, Plans hit me like a sudden epiphany. It remains their most emotionally resonant and musically beautiful record for me, one that never fails to move me. I think it is this Washington band’s clear apex, the way OK Computer is for Radiohead, or Sgt. Pepper is for the Beatles.
I thought it was important to get that bias out of the way upfront, because while I will someday need to stop measuring each new Death Cab record against Plans (and, more accurately, against the way Plans made me feel), I haven’t yet. The first two or three listens to new Death Cab always leave me feeling underwhelmed and vaguely disappointed. It happened with 2008’s Narrow Stairs, and with 2009’s The Open Door, and now it’s happened again with their seventh record, Codes and Keys.
And in this case, the meh is proving harder to shake off. It’s not a bad record, but I’m coming around to the idea that it’s Death Cab’s weakest for some time. And that’s a shame.
When attempting to describe the difference between Plans and Narrow Stairs, I reached for an author’s analogy: the former is a novel, I said, while the latter is a series of short stories. They’re nice stories, but they don’t pack the same cumulative punch. The same can’t be said of Codes and Keys, but I can extend the analogy – this is the ambitious follow-up novel, the one that sacrifices characters for theme, the one that aims to make a Grand Statement, but ends up falling short.
You can hear that ambition in every moment of this record. It is, sonically, the most complex and, frankly, dazzling thing they’ve made. The live-band feel of Stairs is gone, replaced by a painstakingly assembled, glittering studio construct. I can see them spending whole studio days on the exact bass tone they wanted, or trying out different decays on the piercing tones of “St. Peter’s Cathedral.”
For producer (and guitarist) Chris Walla, this is his finest achievement. He knows the band has one distinct advantage that allows them to experiment more than many of their peers, and that’s the voice of Ben Gibbard. His pipes are so distinctive that whatever he sings, no matter how out there, sounds like Death Cab. As long as Gibbard is behind the mic, gracing these tunes with his high, clear, breathtaking voice, the band can go just about anywhere and still sound grounded. And on Codes and Keys, they do – there are sounds on here you’ve never heard this band make.
The trouble with this is twofold – the layered sound creates an emotional distance that the band never overcomes, and the material just isn’t up to the task. I can’t fault Death Cab for creating a big, bold piece of work, but they didn’t write the kind of big, bold songs that requires. In fact, most of these defiantly simple pieces would have sounded better had they been stripped back and allowed to breathe. For all the wizardry on display, Codes and Keys is largely made up of low-key pop – tunes like “Some Boys” and “Monday Morning” and the title track, fun little nothings that don’t go much of anywhere.
Worse than that, though, are Gibbard’s lyrics this time out. Like a novelist seeking to make points beyond his grasp, Gibbard fills Codes and Keys with vague homilies. They sound important, but they don’t connect. Gibbard is usually very good at creating characters and then getting inside their skins, but here he’s content to stick to generalities. Codes is a thematically rich album – it’s about stepping out of your comfort zone, realizing there’s no afterlife worth striving for, and learning to enjoy the life we have. But it stays at arm’s length when it could be a moving experience.
All that said, there are songs here I love. “Underneath the Sycamore” contains the album’s finest hook, and its best lyric. It begins after a car crash, one its protagonist did not survive, and it’s about finding serenity and equality at the last. “This is where we find our peace, this is where we are released,” Gibbard sings, and the band pointedly sequences the comparatively boring “St. Peter’s Cathedral” immediately afterward, a song on which Gibbard concludes there is nowhere to go after death: “When our hearts stop ticking, this is the end, there’s nothing past this…”
I am also a fan of the tricky opener, “Home is a Fire,” which sets up the theme of leaving the comfortable. “Doors Unlocked and Open” and “You Are a Tourist” hit me the right way too, the former with its constant build and the latter with its slippery guitar and vocal lines. But no song here amazes me the way “Unobstructed Views” does. It is unlike any other Death Cab song, floating in on airy synths and ponderous piano, and then stretching that atmosphere over a completely instrumental first three minutes. When Gibbard comes in, singing of the cosmic significance of love, it sends chills. As far as I can tell, there are no guitars in the entire six-minute piece, and it’s the one moment of the album that achieves the transcendence it aims for.
Scratch that – there are actually two moments like that, and the delightful closer “Stay Young, Go Dancing” is the other. After all the weighty spiritual and philosophical thoughts batted around here, the record ends with a two-minute burst of sunlight. The strings are a bit much – I’d like to hear this tune without them, actually – but I can’t fault the song, perhaps the most gloriously optimistic and romantic in the Death Cab catalog. “When she sings, I hear a symphony, and I’m swallowed in sound as it echoes through me, I’m renewed, how I feel alive, and though autumn’s advancing, we’ll stay young, go dancing…”
The ending is so sweet that it serves to paper over some of the low points, like “Some Boys” (on which Gibbard apparently sees nothing wrong with building a song around the line, “Some boys don’t know how to love”), or the completely forgettable “Portable Television.” Even a weak Death Cab for Cutie album is worth hearing, and despite the towering high points, this one is pretty weak. It’s trying very hard, but about half of this material misses the mark, and the rest doesn’t connect with any force. Codes and Keys is so concerned with its own importance that it misses the intimate details that mark Death Cab’s finest work. It’s an ambitious and earnestly-meant effort. I just wish I liked it more.
* * * * *
Similarly, David Bazan is probably going to have trouble living up to 2009’s Curse Your Branches for the rest of his career.
After years of leading Pedro the Lion away from the spiritual light he once basked in, Bazan finally broke up with God on his solo debut. A stunning, difficult, confessional and often petulant record, Branches scorched the earth behind it, making for an absolutely riveting listen. It was as much about his own failings as God’s – “Please Baby Please” remains a startlingly tough song to get through for me – and could easily have been his final musical statement. If he’d decided that he just couldn’t top it, and drifted away from music entirely, I wouldn’t have blamed him.
But here he is, two years later, with another report from his earthly and spiritual travels. This one is called Strange Negotiations, and yes, it falls short of its predecessor. It’s less focused, less insightful, less jaw-droppingly naked (despite the extraordinary cover photo). Given all that, though, it’s a tremendous album in its own right, dark and discomfiting, full of great lines and strong melodies. It’s an easier listen than Curse Your Branches, but the punch it packs is more insidious, making itself known only through repeat dives below its surface.
Musically, I like it better than Curse, actually. For the first time since Achilles Heel in 2004, Bazan has a real-live band playing with him, and the result is appealingly raw. “Wolves at the Door” gets things started on the right note – it’s a ripping piece of music, guitars snarling while Bazan, sounding remarkably energized, spins his cautionary tale: “They took your money and they ate your kids, and they had your way with your wife a lil’ bit, while you wept on the porch with your head in your hands, cursing taxes and the government, ‘cause you’re a goddamned fool…”
Bazan points fingers a lot on this record. “Level With Yourself” includes this verse: “We’re making a list of all the negative side effects that come with the shit you let yourself get away with.” But he spins it back on himself later in the same song, compiling the same list of “the shit I let myself get away with.” Bazan is angry, but he’s also self-aware and clear-eyed. In “People,” he offers an olive branch of sorts to the faith community: “I wanna know who these people are, blaming their sins on the fall, who are these people? If I’m honest with myself at all, these are my people, man, what else can I say, you are my people, and we’re the same in so many ways…”
The strongest songs, musically speaking, are the two Bazan co-wrote with the great Jason Martin, mastermind of Starflyer 59. Both “Eating Paper” and “Messes” stomp along like the finest SF59 rockers, and the latter even works in some of Martin’s trademark synths. “Messes” could fit on any latter-period Pedro the Lion album, with its tale of personal failings coming to light. Bazan flips the script back on himself most effectively on “Don’t Change” – the first verse calls out a drunken manipulator, and the second makes clear that manipulator is Bazan himself. “When I wake up in the morning, I tell myself today I’ll make a change, but falling into my bed at night, I think, man, it was a beautiful day to stay the same…”
With all the darkness swirling around every song, Strange Negotiations ends with a fully-earned shaft of light that may be my favorite of Bazan’s solo numbers. “Won’t Let Go” is a delicate declaration of love in the form of an answering machine message. Musically, it’s a pulsing, atmospheric, low-key piece, and it spots some of Bazan’s best vocals here: “Who or what controls the fates of men I cannot say, but I keep arriving safely home to you, and I humbly acknowledge that I won’t always get my way, but darling death will have to pry my fingers loose, ‘cause I will not let go of you…”
That moment, like everything on Strange Negotiations, feels real. David Bazan is one of the most honest songwriters working today, and if he seems more reflective and less self-destructive here, then I can only take that as a positive thing for him. No, this album is not the stunning experience Curse Your Branches was. But like everything Bazan has done, it’s a worthy piece of work, another chapter in the diary of a most fascinating artist.
* * * * *
Danger Mouse is everywhere.
Just last year, he produced the Black Keys album Brothers, started Broken Bells with the Shins’ James Mercer, and released Dark Night of the Soul, his collaboration with the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. This year, he’s put out an EP with Broken Bells, and he’s producing an album for U2. Not bad for a guy who made his name mashing up the Beatles and Jay-Z.
And now he’s given us perhaps his weirdest project yet. It’s called Rome, and it’s a collaboration with Italian composer Daniele Luppi. It’s a spaghetti western soundtrack without a movie, and it features Jack White and Norah Jones on vocals. It’s a hard record to explain, but an easy one to like. It’s roughly half instrumental, and Danger Mouse and Luppi have crafted a minor-key, walking-through-the-desert sound here that is immensely appealing.
But most people won’t come to Rome for that. They’ll come to hear White and Jones, completely out of their usual contexts, and it’s worth it. White shows up first, on the slippery “The Rose With a Broken Neck,” and as you’d expect from a musical chameleon, he fits right in. He’s awesome on “Two Against One,” the closest this record comes to rocking out. Jones, however, is the revelation – she sounds awake and alive on slinky ‘70s-style tracks like “Season’s Trees,” or at least more awake and alive than I’ve heard her. She’s an inspired choice for this material.
Luppi’s string and choral arrangements are terrific, never overpowering (or even stepping forward, really), but always adding atmosphere. “Her Hollow Ways” is built around a delicate celesta line, and as quiet as that instrument is, it’s front and center here amidst an orchestra and a hundred voices. White wrote the lyrics for all three songs he sings, and his finest moment is on the closer, “The World.” He whips out his falsetto, which perfectly complements the slinky bass, swirly organ and swelling strings.
I have no idea who Danger Mouse made this album for, besides himself. But it’s wonderful stuff, and further proof that this guy can do just about anything. I don’t mind someone so talented cropping up all over the place – in fact, I hope his steady production work leads to more fascinating side trips like this one. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I hit play on this one, but Rome is a complete, smashing success.
* * * * *
Wow, June already? When next we speak, I will be 37 years old. I know, it’s crazy. You’re going to want to be here for next week – I’ve decided to jump into the world of Lady Gaga, and give it an honest review. If I can swallow my bile long enough, that is. (Open mind, open mind!)
See you in line Tuesday morning.