Death Cab for Cutie released an album last week called Codes and Keys. While the band is trying new sounds with the album (bassist Nick Harmer was reported as saying in an interview with Stereogum, “We really experimented with piecing the songs together in different ways and using the studio differently, so this is a much less guitar-centric album than we’ve ever made before,”) the sound is still distinctively Death Cab for Cutie. In fact, Codes and Keys’ sound is still so distinctively the band’s, one might wonder if there really is much experimentation going on.
But, it is true this is a much less “guitar-centric” album, which makes the melodies much sparser. The melodies on Codes and Keys are almost entirely carried by the vocals alone, while the rest of the instrumentation provides a rich tapestry for Gibbard’s sweet and melancholy voice. There is one notable exception to the lack of guitar-centricity, and interestingly it is the album’s first single. “You Are a Tourist” is the only song on the album that brings back the band’s standard guitar-driven, indie-pop sound.
Another interesting result of dropping the guitar from its place of prominence is the feeling of reflection one gets while listening to the album. All of the songs are missing the youthful bounce and exuberance the guitar would normally bring. Because of this, the album as a whole feels more mature and settled.
Lyrically, Gibbard is still covering the usual existential topics. He has gained a reputation for artfully and sensitively musing about love and life, life and growing old, death and the afterlife. While this subject matter is still all in play, Gibbard shows a shift in perspective and inspiration. His recent marriage to actor/musician Zooey Deschanel has certainly influenced his treatment of songs about love. No longer do we hear lyrics like, “The memories of me will seem more like bad dreams.” Rather, we hear the soaring refrain, “Cause when she sings I hear a symphony, and I’m swallowed in sound as it echoes through me,” from the song “Stay Young, Go Dancing.”
Living in L.A. also seems to be a common theme throughout the album. The song “Home is a Fire” on the surface seems to be about experiencing an earthquake. “Doors Unlocked and Open” references California explicitly, with lyrics about isolation, dotted lines, seas of concrete, and the hope that one day everyone will be able to live with “Doors Unlocked and Open.” In the song “Stay Young, Go Dancing” Gibbard sings about life in the “belly of the beast,” which is a phrase he has used to reference Los Angeles in the past.
Gibbard also is much clearer lyrically on his views of the existence of God and an afterlife. In the past, songs like “I Will Follow You into the Dark,” alluded to his questions and doubts regarding the Orthodox Catholic view of the existence of heaven and hell (Gibbard was raised Roman Catholic). In the song “Unobstructed Views” Gibbard sings, “There’s no eye in the sky…no perfect truths.” In St. Peter’s Cathedral he sings about death, “This is the end, and there’s nothing past this.”
With Codes and Keys, Death Cab for Cutie has released a strong album that shows a band that is maturing both musically and personally. It also shows a band that is still willing to step out and tinker with their sound. Ultimately, Codes and Keys is a nice addition to the band’s catalog and it’s an album that should satisfy longtime fans as well as garner new listeners.