Death Cab For Cutie, Narrow Stairs (2008)

Am I supposed to like Death Cab For Cutie?  I think they were once associated with 90's emo, which I'm definitely not, though to be frank I can't say I'm clear on what that genre is supposed to encompass.  And when I used to drive my daughter's soccer carpool, they were the one band I'd play in the car where one of the girls might pipe up from the back seat, "hey, I like this band."  Not a good sign.

But cred be damned, I think they've released some of the best music of the past two decades.  Their 3-album run in the aughts (2003's Transatlanticism, 2005's Plans, and this one) are all pretty impressive, and they've had a number of great songs both before and since.  While Plans is probably the most consistently strong album to date, Narrow Stairs features some of their finest songs.  Ben Gibbard's lyrics have never been more inventive, and there are hooks aplenty even in some of the moodier songs.  Well, actually, it's all pretty moody; this is not the work of a man in a healthy place.

The sprawling groove of the stalker ode "I Will Possess Your Heart" made for a striking single, but it's the run of tunes that follows that is most noteworthy.  "No Sunlight" buries Gibbard's depressive tone beneath a deceptively poppy hook; "Cath" is a compelling narrative of a mis-made marriage; "You Can Do Better Than Me" is a brief Brian Wilson wall-of-sound blast (again sugar-coating the self-deprecating narrative); and "Grapevine Fires" is simply gorgeous, a moving observational piece over a rollicking snare beat.  I'm particularly taken with "Your New Twin Sized Bed," a brilliantly lyrical song of giving up on love ("You look so defeated lying there in your new twin sized bed, with a single pillow underneath your single head.  I guess you decided that old queen was more space than you would need, now it's in the alley behind your apartment with a sign that says it's free"); and "Long Division" cleverly weaves a fear of being left behind (i.e. a remainder) into a math metaphor.

The album is not without flaws; the opening "Bixby Canyon Bridge" shows the band's occasional weakness for unneeded bombast, and a few of the songs at the back of the album are a little too dirgey for my taste.  But on the whole it's packed with lyrical and musical hooks that hold up well, with a polished sheen well beyond the rough lo-fi scuff of some of their earlier work.

Here's the "Cath" video:
And "Long Division" live in the studio:
And hey, if you've got nothing but time on your hands, how about the full-length "Possess" video?

Buy it on Amazon.