Sound — 9
Death Cab For Cutie's quirky new release Narrow Stairs has been receiving quite a bit of buzz, and this is one case where it's justly received. The band has the amazing ability to create songs that sound both melancholy and lighthearted in the same moment, resulting in quite a perplexing experience. There's a variety of styles that DCFC dabbles in on Narrow Stairs, and the band hits it's peak when they put an emphasis on a more cinematic, ambient sound.
The band has made the interesting move of picking I Will Possess Your Heart -- a track in which the vocals don't come into play until halfway through the song -- as the first single. It's a brave move, but perfect choice. The adjectives atmospheric and dreamy come to mind listening to the 8-minute-long track, and it's cool to hear the layers upon layers of instrumentation that are introduced before the vocals even enter the picture. I Will Possess Your Heart is heavy on the effects, with the reverb and echo dripping off of every note, which makes for an interesting contrast to the stripped-down, simple vocals of Ben Gibbard.
DCFC doesn't rely on effects in every track, and it seems like they go in the opposite direction on half of the album. Talking Bird is a solemn number with minimal instrumentation, and lyrically it couldn't get simpler. As the track progresses there are more textures and sounds that are added into the picture, but it never overtakes the melody. What makes Talking Bird stand out so well, however, is that it evokes some strange feelings while listening to it. It doesn't necessarily ooze sadness, but you can't help feeling a little down after you finish it. Any song that leaves you a little emotionally confused has got to be given credit for making its mark.
No Sunlight takes on the hefty role of being one of the few upbeat pop songs on Narrow Stairs, and it's a memorable, although repetitive number. It has a catchy feel much like the older single Crooked Teeth, but this type of song is in the minority on Narrow Stairs. The happy factor has been taken down a notch on this album, and the entire listening experience is a tad moodier. It's not quite as depressing as some people out there are making it out to be, but the closing track The Ice Is Getting Thinner does win the award for the biggest tear-jerker. With just vocals and guitar for much of the song, the main attraction is the lyrics -- and they will rip your heart out at times.
Lyrics — 10
Although definitely sad, songs like The Ice Is Getting Thinner remain poignant and it never seems like the band is shoving a sappy love song down your throat. In every song, regardless of the theme, there is a lot of thought put into every line and Narrow Stairs is one of the best lyrical albums I've heard in quite a while because of it. Inspiration is coming from every direction, with Bixby Canyon Bridge apparently inspired by Jack Kerouac and Grapevine Fires relating to California's brush of wildfires. Even if there are a few songs that musically don't quite emphasize the band's best, the lyrics are always on point.
Overall Impression — 9
Narrow Stairs marks a huge turning point in DCFC's career, and the Washington band has risen to a different level with this release. On Pity And Fear, Bixby Canyon Bridge, and I Will Possess Your Heart the band is at the top of its game, with each one evoking emotion and displaying some incredible musicianship. There are a few tracks that might not reach this same level, but on the whole Narrow Stairs indicates that DCFC probably has a lot more beautifully heart-wrenching music up its sleeve.