With Death Cab for Cutie’s Codes and Keys, we have my first disappointment, albeit a minor one, of the year. In the three years since their last full-length, lead singer Benjamin Gibbard got married to actress/musician Zooey Deschanel and put down the bottle for good. While it was expected that these life changes would lead to a change to more optimistic lyrics than DCFC’s stereotypical downer-fests, it was unexpected that the album would end up convoluted and muddled, especially based on the quality of the two tracks released prior to the album, the title track and the first single “You Are A Tourist,” both of which are two of the better tracks on the album.
The electronic opener “Home is a Fire” begins the album on a positive note, with hints of Gibbard’s popular side project The Postal Service. This is followed by the piano-led title track, which is also backed by Jason McGerr’s always-stellar drumming. However, the sweetness from these two tracks is soon replaced with a sour taste. The following two songs, “Some Boys” and “Doors Unlocked And Open,” are downright boring. The passion Gibbard exhibited in the past vocally and lyrically on songs like “Title and Registration,” and “Styrofoam Plates,” seems drained and is replaced by incredibly vague lyrics and stock vocal performances.
“You Are A Tourist,” the guitar riff-based lead single from the album, is a breath of fresh air, which looks to save the album as Gibbard delivers the first stellar vocal performance on the album, backed by an immediately catchy riff. Guitarist/pianist/producer/jack-of-all-trades Chris Walla is the true genius on this album, creating much of what makes this album interesting. While on some songs it is overly indulgent, that is far from the case on “You Are A Tourist.”
And then the album returns to the snore fest. “Unobstructed Views” is plagued with an extremely long, dull instrumental beginning, which isn’t nearly as interesting as that of “I Will Possess Your Heart,” from 2008’s Narrow Stairs, despite the latter’s instrumental beginning lasting far longer. “Monday Morning” is a salvageable track. If it was on any of the band’s prior albums, it would find itself near the bottom of the ranking; however, it is near the top here. Take that as you will.
“Portable Television” features some interesting percussion and horns that make the track somewhat memorable. Fortunately, it is followed by the best back-to-back track combination since the openers of the album. The driving “Underneath the Sycamore” recalls the band’s middle albums, including The Photo Album, Transatlanticism, and Plans, which many fans hold as their favorites by the band. This is paired with the atmospheric “St. Peter’s Cathedral,” which has a sound that will fill stadiums amplified by soaring keys. Just when you get your hopes up for a stellar end to the album, they are squashed by the closer, “Stay Young, Go Dancing,” which was obviously written for Deschanel and had me wishing for the album to just end, a feeling I never thought I would have based on prior album closers by the band.
We should all be happy for Benjamin Gibbard. He kicked an alcohol addiction and got married in the time since Death Cab for Cutie’s last album. While this is extremely good for him, it may be an omen for his band if this album is any indication. There are good songs here, but the ones that focus on his new happy life make for some of the worst in the band’s discography.