In an interview with Billboard, Death Cab For Cutie guitarist Chris Walla promised that their seventh LP, Narrow Stairs, would be a “curve ball.”
He’s right: Compared to the tentative, sad-yet-sunny melancholy of Death Cab’s previous
efforts, Stairs sounds grungy, dark, and muscular. The problem with throwing curve balls, though, is that they’re less likely to connect with the listener — which could ultimately cause some fans to walk.
The deal-breaker isn’t Walla’s expansive production — many of his touches add welcome texture without sacrificing that special live-band-playing-together feel. Can’t blame the rhythm section, either: Drummer Jason McGerr gives the band an extra boost on every track.
The guilty party is none other than bespectacled frontman Ben Gibbard, who up until now has never failed to tug a heartstring. From the weak, ho-hum opener “Bixby Canyon Bridge” to the too little, too late ballad “The Ice is Getting Thinner,” the songwriting here is pretty uneven. Stairs feels more like a collection of B-sides than a proper album.
Tracks like the ghostly “Grapevine Fires” and the radio-ready “Long Division” stand out among duds like “Cath...”, “Pity and Fear,” and “Your New Twin Sized Bed” — all of which suffer from bland melodies, uninspired lyrics (two areas in which Gibbard usually excels) and a disappointing sense of familiarity.
The most obvious departure from the DCFC template — the much-talked-about, almost-nine-minute stalker-jam “I Will Possess Your Heart” — is actually the highlight of the record. Gibbard and Co. succeed in reconciling their old sound with their new, adventurous direction, but that excitement fails to energize Gibbard’s songwriting elsewhere.
The worst example of this is the timpani-driven, orchestral pop of “You Can Do Better Than Me,” (DCFC’s answer to The Beach Boys’ “I Know There’s an Answer”), that, for all of Walla’s knob twiddling, still falls flat with a groaner of a punchline.
Death Cab can do better than Narrow Stairs — they’ve just got to give the curve balls a rest and start throwing some heat.