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New Death Cab – a thoughtsplurge

04/06/2011

I’m a fan of the modern rock trope of guitar bands switching their six-stringers to keyboards and synthesizers for a moment. I always get excited when I hear a band’s new album follows that path. It’s not that I dislike guitar-driven music, but when a band that has formerly leaned on one instrument decides to wander outside their familiar box, the result is more often than not incredibly interesting – full of new-found fresh ideas and approaches to making music. A fair few of such albums are among my favourites, if not the favourite, of the works of the bands in question. This includes Plans, Death Cab for Cutie‘s 2005 album where the band switched their usual guitar presence to keyboard and piano-driven songwriting, resulting in not only their best album but also one of my all-time favourite recordings. Suffice to say, when the news arrived that Codes and Keys was once again pushing guitars to the back and replacing them with synths and alike, I was quite excited.

The big ‘but’ that’s now expected to arrive is two-fold. For one, the sound of Codes and Keys is hardly worth the hype the band put on it: the guitar may be relegated to providing texture in the background more often than standing in the lead, but Codes and Keys is far from the Death-Cab-goes-electronic that the initial vibe given by the band stated. It’s your fairly usual band sound, simply with a bit more piano this time. More curiously, the switch in approach hasn’t resulted in something fresh and interesting. If anything, on Codes and Keys Death Cab sound at their most formulaic and ordinary: musically it’s arguably the most direct, no-thrills album they’ve done and on a fair few occasions flirts with very radio-friendly tones. Not a bad thing in itself, but it doesn’t do the album favours when the overall tone sounds so detached.

The most troublesome aspect of Codes and Keys is how it sounds like there’s no emotional investment to it. This is a big deal because this is Death Cab for Cutie we are talking about – as corny and clichéd as it is to say this, they’ve always been the sort of band who connect to the listener emotionally. Their music has always had a very personal touch to it and Gibbard is a fantastic lyricist who could really breathe life into his texts in a way that the observant listener could feel the intended impact of the twists and turns of his tales of broken people and love corrupted. On Codes and Keys, the band sound detached from all that. Not the good kind of emotional detachment either, but the bad sort where it sounds like no one could be bothered to give it their best shot. Worst of all is Gibbard’s lyrical performance which ranges from forgettable to cringeworthily inane throughout the album, and it’s downright awkward to hear a normally fantastic wordsmith to go through vague second-rate vapidities like “when there’s a burning in your heart / an endless yearning in your heart / build it bigger than the sun / let it grow”.

Codes and Keys’ major saving grace is that this is still a band of good songwriters we’re talking about and while the lyrics are terrible and the band seems to be going through the motions, there’s still enough good things to make the album an enjoyable run of songs. It could be a better run of songs if it had the feeling of complete investment behind it and a lot of Codes and Keys is more about good songs that could potentially be great if this and that was done for them. Still, it’s hard to argue that the pounding, string-swiveling title track doesn’t deserve a place among the band’s top tiers and the wonderful tension of “Home Is a Fire” is a creeping grower which sounds better everytime. Even the song responsible for the lyrics highlighted above, the lead single “You Are a Tourist”, is musically a rather dandily good pop single with an infectious guitar riff and some great build-up at the end. There’s a lot of moments on Codes and Keys where you find yourself enjoying the ride and it’s by no means a bad album – however, it sounds like a slightly half-arsed attempt at a great one. There’s enough things here to make it an enjoyable album, but not enough to turn it into anything other than a name in a discography list.

So I am in two minds, to put it simply. On one hand, Codes and Keys is one of the few disappointments of the 2011 album year so far, an especially annoying thing seeing as how strong Death Cab’s discography in general is. It is, essentially, a sub-standard Death Cab album. But at the same time it’s not exactly pushed me away either and there’s been a few occasions where I’ve wanted to hear it again. So there are good elements to it. What might possibly describe it the best is that it’s a bundle of untapped potential. Had they pushed the chosen musical direction a bit further, like they originally claimed they were going to, the result might be a lot more interesting than it is now. In its current state, it sounds like they backed away from the idea halfway through the process. Resulting in a somewhat disappointing album.


You Are a Tourist

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