Narrow Stairs, the sixth LP from Death Cab for Cutie, second one they did on Atlantic, just came out today. I used to listen to DCfC fairly frequently in high school, so there is a certain amount of nostalgia when I heard that a new album is coming out. In all honesty, I thought Plans, their last album, was kind of a disappointment, a kind of watered-down, middling record compared to Transatlancism.
Now to be fair, Narrow Stairs isn’t exactly an artistic masterpiece that will so to speak, “blow your mind.” But it is certainly a change in direction in terms of the band’s sound, so for that I give them credit.
The first thing that I noticed is how the production changed the mix: whereas before the mix usually featured Ben Gibbard’s voice, and gave the rest of the instruments a kind of ethereal, dreamy sound, this record features the rhythm section very prominently. The first two tracks, “Bixby Canyon Bridge” and “I Will Possess Your Heart,” feature mixes that place the bass and the drums upfront and center. The mixing continues like this for the rest of the album, giving the record a much more grounded and anchored sound than before.
The guitars are also a little bit “dirtier,” with more fuzz and distortion, but don’t get me wrong, it’s not exactly My Bloody Valentine or Sonic Youth. Just remember that I am talking about the sound relative to the rest of their catalog. Chris Walla also messes more with Ben Gibbard’s voice, adding more effects and manipulations, which stands out in contrast to the kind of pure, unadulterated vocals that have characterized DCfC’s previous albums.
In fact, on certain tracks, like “No Sunlight” and “Long Division,” the band almost seems to be playing straight-ahead pop-rock songs, and on “Pity and Fear,” the band even dabbles in Indian instruments. But again, the overriding theme seems to be placing the rhythm section front and center. The bass lines are definitely mixed much louder, and the drums have much more impact than they did on previous albums.
To sum it roughly, this record has much more of a real band playing in a room feel, much more earthy rather than dreamy. This is not to say that this album is “experimental” in any absolute sense, but only experimental in relation to their previous records. Therefore, this is an interesting record in the sense that I can definitely see fans of previous albums, especially Transatlanticism, can be turned off by the new-ish sound that the band is going for. Some might say that DCfC’s new-found experimental streak makes the record sound all over the place, which is certainly a legit observation. But I welcome a change in sound, because as Plans showed, their previous formula would not have lasted much longer.
This is not to say that this record is a complete change, as some of the tracks, especially “Gravepine Fires” and “Your New Twin Sized Bed,” sound much more as continuations of their previous sound. In fact, “Your New Twin Sized Bed” to me seems to be the culmination of the kind of sound that the band tried on their last two albums: a kind of ethereal, floating sound featuring spacey-sounding synthesizers and keyboards, little flourishes like shakers and reverbs on Ben Gibbard’s vocals in certain places, etc. Of course, Ben Gibbard still sings in the same voice, and the lyrical themes focus on pretty much the same thing: mortality, of both life and love.
So do I like this record? I guess the answer is a qualified yes. I give the band credit for trying for a new sound, and Chris Walla proves that as a producer, he can adapt to different soundscapes. Is this record a “transitional” one? I don’t know; it remains to be seen what the band does on their next album, such as developing the rhythm section even more, even fuzzier guitar sounds, and so forth, but also combined with the spacey sounds.