Death Cab For Cutie: Now More Like Slayer Than Its Ever Been--Kinda
As Chris Walla was making the media rounds to promote his debut solo foray, Field Manual, last fall and winter, he also began talking up the then-in-progress seventh album from his primary outfit, Death Cab for Cutie, the Seattle quartet for whom he's served as guitarist and producer/engineer since the band's late-'90s inception. Speaking to Billboard, he described the new material as "abrasive" and "dissonant," claimed it was influenced by bassist Nick Harmer's interest in "heavy, sludgy, slow metal," and insisted that "it's totally a curve ball, and I think it's gonna be a really polarizing record." And in an October post on his web site, Walla provided this update: "It's creepy and heavy . . . we've got a ten-minute long Can jam, and had you suggested that possibility to me in 1998, I'd have eaten your puppy's brain with a spoon."
The online world was atwitter, and all sorts of questions arose. Was Death Cab really trading in its winsome, wistful, much-beloved indie-pop--the stuff of mixtape courting and lamenting--for experimental, unsettling cacophony? Could frontman Ben Gibbard--he of the high, poignant voice, disarming presence, and penchant for sweetly vulnerable songwriting--really pull something like that off? And would Atlantic Records--which wooed the band away from comparatively tiny Barsuk Records a few years ago, put out its sixth disc, 2005's Plans, and watched that album rack up big sales, spawn a huge hit ("I Will Follow You Into the Dark"), and garner Grammy nominations--really stand by while Death Cab abandoned the tried-and-true for a potentially less-marketable sound?
And then, in early May, that new disc, Narrow Stairs, finally arrived. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts, a first for the band. And, upon first listen, it mostly sounds like . . . well, a Death Cab for Cutie album.
What gives, Walla? "I wasn't lying!" the affable, good-natured guitarist exclaims over the phone from Los Angeles, where the previous night Death Cab performed its current single, "I Will Possess Your Heart," on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live! "When I was giving those interviews, the record was fuckin' weird. There were no vocals on it. It was all these crazy, fuzzed-out guitar jams, and it was starting to feel like that's what was actually gonna happen. But records change so much from the time you start until the time you finish. Clearly it's not that much of a landscape shift for us. I mean, it is, but it's not as dramatic as I thought it was gonna be at that point."
In other words, it's hardly Slayer. "It's not like Slayer," Walla concurs with a laugh. "But it's more like Slayer. Incrementally."
To be fair, that first listen does offer a couple of moderately jarring moments amid the relentless melodic richness and usual preponderance of warm piano and cleanly ringing six strings--most notably the clamorous guitar outros of opener "Bixby Canyon Bridge" and the penultimate "Pity and Fear." And if you spend some more time with Narrow Stairs, more subtle alterations begin to sink in. It's still the same four Cuties--drummer Jason McGerr rounds out the group--but it's as if they've just emerged from a week in the woods rough-faced, soul-weary, and a bit irritable. Sonically, Stairs often feels thicker, less airy, more urgent, ever so slightly claustrophobic even--with hazy bits of guitar and keyboard atmosphere and busier percussion filling spaces often left blank on previous outings. The rosy-sounding, power-poppy "No Sunlight" and the moodier, more stately "Cath . . . ," though emotionally divergent, share this quality.
And lyrically, Gibbard occasionally indulges in some darker-than-usual visions, subverting his cuddly, good-guy persona. If his last big "I Will . . . " song was a bittersweet rumination on eternal love, in "I Will Possess Your Heart"--an eight-minute piece that builds up to his first couplet with nearly five minutes of shadowy bass, resolute drumming, undulating guitar vapor, and dollops of grand piano--he comes creepy, placing the song right there with the Police's "Every Breath You Take" and Animotion's "Obsession" in the pantheon of stalker tunes. "There are days when outside your window, I see my reflection as I slowly pass/ And I long for this mirrored perspective, when we'll be lovers, lovers at last," he warbles--his honeyed voice making those sentiments that much more disturbing--later adding, "You reject my advances and desperate pleas/ I won't let you let me down so easily."
But Death Cab can never get too far away from its essential nature, largely because the most dominant and recognizable element of the songs--Gibbard's vocals--simply isn't going to change much, no matter how much the band attempts to rough things up or change its recording style (much of Narrow Stairs was recorded live in the studio, as opposed to the meticulous overdubbing of albums past).
Walla concedes as much. "Ben's voice just isn't suited to heavier stuff," he says. "He can't pretend that he's Chris Cornell--there's just no use in even trying. I've pushed at different points in the 12 years that I've known him to try to get some grit, and he's not good at it. It's not natural for him, it doesn't sound good, there's just no reason to do it.
"And trying to get Ben's vocal delivery into songs like that has always been a real challenge," he continues. "I'll put together a bunch of sounds and I'll think it's all kinda rockin' and workin'--it feels like it's got the right kind of thing happening, the right kind of energy. And then I drop Ben's vocals in it, and it's like, `Oh, nooooo. That doesn't work.'"
Still, Death Cab's biggest strength--aside from its knack for simply writing superb, memorable tunes--is recognizing and accepting the limitations, yet being conscious of, and willing to explore, the possibilities within those parameters. "I often wish that we could push a little further, but the fact of the matter is, we're a pop band," Walla says. "Ben writes pop songs, and I love pop songs. The part of us that grew up on [Tacoma, Wash.'s now defunct legendarily heavy band] Botch records kind of makes me wish that we could do some of that stuff, but we just can't, and we shouldn't."
There's consolation in ascending to the top of the music world with those appealing pop songs, and there'll always be at least one outlet for Death Cab's inner rock beast. "The fact of it is that we get to be a blazing rock band onstage," Walla notes. "I can just concentrate on playing guitar and being in a rock band, which is really what I signed up to do. And we're playing hockey arenas, and there's a particular kind of guitar sound and tempo and thing that you can do that just sounds awesome in an arena. Like Ted Nugent or something."
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