Codes and Keys

I am a pretty big DCFC fan. I got hooked by 2005’s Plans, and worked my way back to 2003’s seminal Transatlanticism. Following that, I think I liked Narrow Stairs a lot more than most other people. Was it an unrestrained crystallization of pure self-pity? Undoubtedly. Did I love it for exactly that reason? Basically.

So how then to approach Codes And Keys, released earlier this summer? In interviews, Gibbard and co. mentioned that they wanted to get away from the super-sap that had defined (perhaps to a fault) their previous album. That’s a perfectly legitimate goal, and I have mad respect for it. Love these dudes though I do, the result must be judged on its own merits.

Codes And Keys is, in that sense, an experimental album for the group. It’s 11 tracks are marked by frustrating degree of mediocrity. As I sit and listen to it now, I can’t really lodge any complaint of much gravity, but in the months I’ve had it in rotation, I only managed to listen to it 8 or 9 times. It’s a decent record, there just isn’t much to keep you coming back.

‘Home Is A Fire’ is a respectable enough start, with it’s building intensity and hushed chorus. The problem with this song, which is pretty endemic to many of the tracks, is that all this time is spent building and building, but there’s no release. Ben never belts out some gut-wrenching despair-fueled line (‘I need you so much closer,’ ‘I will possess your heart’, ‘You can’t find nothin’ at all / If there was nothin’ there all along’, etc.) that serves to focus all the energy of the song. It just never happens.

I did like the title track, ‘Codes And Keys‘. Below is a cut of the track they did for VH1’s Storytellers series.

      Codes And Keys (VH1 Storytellers) - Death Cab For Cutie

It’s got a nice little ‘pop’ to it, and I think what I like most about it is that it’s chorus gets closer than most other tracks to what I wanted/expected. It’s also got a nice bit of wordplay, which is cute, if nothing else.

‘Some Boys’ has some energy to it, but it feels misdirected, and works better if you don’t listen to the words. ‘Doors Unlocked And Open’ is musically one of my favorite tracks. I sometimes wonder if songs like this wouldn’t benefit from a second non-Gibbard set of vocals on the track. A lady, perhaps? It just needs a little bit more to shift it from ‘good’ to ‘great’.

The single, ‘You Are A Tourist’, grew on me over time. It’s probably the most like what we’ve come to expect from the group. My only complaint is that it isn’t sad enough. “‘Cause when find yourself the villain \ in the story you have written” is a fantastic lyric, one of my favorites, but it’s set to such an upbeat song! The mis-match is ultimately what holds this track from being awesome.

‘Unobstructed Views’ would be way, way better if their were no lyrics. The dark, spacy instrumental is marred by the needlessly syrup-sweet lyrics at the tail end, and would have been perfect in their absence.

‘Monday Morning’ is what I’d say is the most successful foray by DCFC into the ‘write a song that isn’t that sad’ project. It’s light, smooth, and has some fun guitar hooks along with a pretty tried-and-true song structure that’s been put through its paces since the mid-2000’s.

‘Portable Television’ is a post-apocolyptic tale that is essentially rendered wholly uesless by 2002’s Postal Service effort ‘We Will Become Silhouettes’. It’s not bad in its own right, but if the purpose was to tell a peppy story about post-nuclear survival, the job can be done no better than ‘Silhouettes,’ and it was silly to try again.

Towards the end, ‘Underneath The Sycamore‘ is one of the few spots for the band is truly firing on all cylinders. This song would have been right at home on Plans (and a bright spot even there):

      Underneath The Sycamore - Death Cab For Cutie

The tone and lyrical content are well matched, and the instrumentation and pacing are spot on. I would have happily listened to a whole album of songs that reached this caliber.

‘St. Peter’s Cathedral’ is the lone callback to Transatlanticsm-style writing: Melancholy and swaying, its glib observations are penetrating and insightful. This is slow DCFC at their best, and it makes a fantastic closing track- oh, what’s that? You’re saying there’s a song after ‘St. Peter’s’?

That would be ‘Stay Young, Go Dancing’. It’s cheer and heart-warming sentiments have no place on this record. The feel-good-ness of it is audacious, and I really can’t stand it at all. This is the song you play when the bride dances with her dad at the wedding, and everyone thinks it’s really sweet and special and somewhere in the audience Tom is rolling his eyes because it is basically the Most Trite Thing Ever.

No more ranting, I just had to get that out. At the end of the day, Codes And Keys is a patchwork of good and less-than-good. At roughly equal parts of each, it’s hard to emphatically say “buy this record,” but even modest DCFC fans will find enough to like to justify picking it up. I’m glad I did, and I’m also glad that Death Cab is making a conscious effort to not be complacent. It’s a really respectable thing, even if you don’t get it right on your first try. Also props to the cover design, which I found quite striking.

Death Cab For Cutie – Codes And Keys

(A Really Morbid Confession That I Am Truthfully Ashamed Of: Since the breakup of Zooey Deschanel and Ben Gibbard, I wonder if we won’t see a return to the more downer-pop-driven style we know the group is capable of? I feel like a gross human being for even thinking in such terms…)