ALBUM REVIEW: Death Cab For Cutie – Codes and Keys

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Death Cab For Cutie – “Home is a Fire”

Death Cab for Cutie, in a rare act of puckishness, play a joke on the cover of their seventh LP Codes and Keys. Front and center, as if chiseled into a slab of silver, is what the kids call a hashtag, the flagellum that propels the fleeting and multitudinous internet memes that have become the white noise of social networking. Those of us who still remember the first President Bush will instead recognize a close-up of a payphone key, and on it, our old friend the pound sign. The instant nostalgia behind this visual gag informs much of Codes and Keys, an album that wears its heart, and millennial anxiety, squarely on its sleeve. “She may be young, but she only likes old things. The modern music, it ain’t to her taste,” Ben Gibbard sings on “Monday Morning.” Indeed, despite their electronic trimmings, the songs on Codes and Keys seem to have been written with this nameless young Luddite in mind.

Codes and Keys is as critic-proof as a major album release gets. During the last decade, Death Cab have simultaneously established a die-hard fan base, who are no doubt already intimately familiar with the album’s eleven tracks, and have managed to shoo away those who are reflexively opposed to all things Ben Gibbard. No amount of critical savaging will keep the first group away; no amount of glowing praise will entice the second. To my great surprise, the haters are the big losers here. Gibbard and Co. have returned with a sure-footed album, heavy with melodies and textural flourishes, worthy of the true believer and neophyte alike.

The jazzy polyrhythms of “Home Is a Fire” open the album, skittering, like Björk’s “Hyperballad,” at double-time beneath Gibbard’s vocal melody. The beguiling tug-of-war of tension and release gives way to the dashing major-chord piano swing of the album’s title song. It’s a marvelous instance of sequencing: Codes and Keys‘ second track and the listener swoon together. Codes and Keys overflows with such moments of joy. The guitar hook that sings through “You Are a Tourist” recalls the Stone Roses’ “She Bangs the Drum” and Modest Mouse’s “Float On,” a riff worth its weight in radio gold. “Stay Young, Go Dancing” finds Gibbard a buoyant optimist, musically and lyrically. Though he tempers his sentiment – “Life is sweet in the belly of the beast” – you can’t help but think of an exuberant Diana Ross when he announces, “When she sings, I hear a symphony.”

Sad-sack fans need not worry: Codes and Keys is, unfortunately, a Death Cab album after all. Gibbard remains weighed-down as ever, by mortality (“Unobstructed Views” and “St. Peter’s Cathedral”) and modernity (“Doors Unlocked and Open” and “Portable Television”). By hitting these targets so lazily, Gibbard puts a drag on a veteran band so close to reaching full-throttle.


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