Some bands ride a rollercoaster of popularity, with a steep climb quickly followed by a period when — absent a radio hit — the bottom drops out. Death Cab for Cutie's enjoyed a more modest incline. It has experienced a steady growth in stature over the past 14 years — aside from the big jump it made with the release of 2003's Transatlanticism and the success of frontman Ben Gibbard's one-off side project, Postal Service, which preceded Death Cab's move from indie label Barsuk to the major Atlantic.
As the marketing power of Atlantic has obviously helped the Washington state quartet, it's taken a moment for them to get their bearings. Though 2005's major label debut, Plans, went platinum and scored a Grammy, it suffered some of the worst reviews of the band's career, as critics complained about the emphasis on keyboards, lack of diversity, and weaker songs. The follow-up, 2008's Narrow Stairs, was the proverbial "back to basics" album, as Death Cab scaled back the production, capturing the band playing live in the studio and proving both darker and more vibrant in scope.
With their latest, Codes & Keys, the band returns to a warm cinematic sound and finds a better emotional balance, as the marriages of Ben Gibbard (to actress Zooey Deschanel) and bassist Nick Harmer have engendered a more hopeful, upbeat spirit.
Death Cab for Cutie is scheduled to perform Monday, August 15, at Comerica Theatre.
"We're all feeling pretty well-adjusted these days and pretty balanced between the success and demands of being in a band and the demands of being at home and a person with family and wives and those kind of things," says Harmer. "I don't want to speak too much for Ben, but I feel like this album is coming from that place in all of us, and I'm really happy about that."
In the past, Gibbard's lyrics reveled in existential ache and wary romantic longing as he stared deep into his navel while singing in a tenderly alluring boy-next-door tenor. But Code & Keys throws open the windows and lets the fetid air escape. It's a spirit that extends from the catchy and propulsive "Doors Unlocked and Open," which promises to "live in slow motion and be free," to the fluttering folky "Stay Young, Go Dancing," in which Gibbard expresses how renewed and alive he feels, singing "life is sweet . . . with her song in your heart."
A new approach to recording shares responsibility for the album's success. In contrast to Narrow Stairs, which Harmer describes as "a snapshot of the band playing music," Death Cab took advantage of ProTools, experimenting extensively with different layers and sounds. Though the catalog has always boasted rich textures, there's a crispness and ease to Codes & Keys that's a result of both a more relaxed recording schedule and the mixing of Alan Moulder (The Jesus and Mary Chain, Blur).
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"We said, 'If we're going to explore the layering and the texturing this much, let's give the songs some time to gestate before we make any crucial decisions about the success or failure of those experiments,'" Harmer says. "So we would record a bunch of stuff and then put it away for a few weeks . . . It allowed us to remain a little more objective about the sort of quality and work of the things that we were doing.
"I also give a ton of credit to Alan Moulder. He was able to take all of these threads, uncommon sounds, and experiments we were doing and make the songs very musical and also make them relate to each other sonically in a way that makes them feel like part of the same album. That was sort of the final stamp or the spackle, if you will, that really pulled Codes & Keys together."
The more open-hearted attitude suits them well, dovetailing nicely with the expansive sound of the album. Indeed, for the first time in eight years, it seems Death Cab has gotten its groove back, and things only look up for the future.
"I think this is going to be our working M.O. going forward," Harmer says. "We really sort of hit our stride in the studio and it felt great."