It’s hard to chart when Death Cab For Cutie went from being a contextually successful indie group to a consistently gold-selling alternative rock band, but it was definitely somewhere between being name-dropped on “The O.C.” and the unexpected breakout success of Ben Gibbard’s side project The Postal Service — a pair of unwitting bookends that somehow circumvented the necessity for a hit single or an act of marketing genius. This inadvertent, but taken-advantage-of freedom is, in part, what allows (or even propels) the linear thrust of Codes and Keys. Of its eleven tracks, the majority are dictated by rhythm over melody, delivering on the band’s initial promise that this would be “a much less guitar-centric album than we’ve ever made before.” But that’s not to say that this isn’t a pop record at heart, and Gibbard’s propensity for earnest literary statements still pulls the strings.
“You Are A Tourist” was a smart choice for the lead single: most similar to the band’s earlier work, it features a relatively normal arrangement along with Gibbard’s high/slightly-less-high vocal contrasts guiding the listener throughout the track. It also includes Death Cab’s most memorable riff since “Title And Registration,” as Chris Walla’s guitar has its shining moment. It’s infectious and sweet, a great representation of the album as a whole. It also serves as a segue into the best track on the record, the six-minute “Unobstructed Views.”
“Unobstructed Views” is a ruminative number about living without the assurances of religion or universal truth. In fact, in the lyric “there’s no one in the sky, just our love/no one unobstructed view, no perfect views/just our love, just our love,” Gibbard succinctly sums up Death Cab’s seemingly new outlook. Nothing matters but love. Gone, for the most part, are the musings of a wounded boy. In its place is a man who has found himself, still scarred, but, also, in love…and in love with being in love.
Nowhere is this more explicit than on the final cut, “Stay Young, Go Dancing.” Despite normally closing albums with a sad and contemplative track, Death Cab goes for smiles here as the track is bound by a twinkling set of keys and a snare-filled drum line that beckons for lovers to dance closely with each other. Perhaps we can thank Zooey Deschanel, Gibbard’s wife, for the new mood.
This is certainly not an album all Death Cab fans will be quick to embrace. There is something about the acute angst of their other work that has endeared them to so many listeners. While that angst is largely absent here, there is much to be said about the evolution in its place. It is a rare thing for a band so defined by a signature aesthetic to abandon it in the way Death Cab has here. “Codes and Keys” isn’t my favorite album by Death Cab, but it is one that will easily find a comfortable slot in my summer soundtrack