Death Cab for Cutie

Narrow Stairs

(Atlantic/WEA; 2008)

By Colin McGowan | 4 June 2008

In a recent piece for Paste Magazine, Death Cab frontman Ben Gibbard comments on, among numerous other self-indulgent topics, the way in which his band polarizes music fans: “Death Cab has become one of those weird cultural fenceposts—people align their tastes on one side or the other.” I have never, in my admittedly limited travels, encountered a particularly passionate Death Cab devotee nor someone of vehement opposition to the band’s music over the age of, say, sixteen, but trusting Gibbard that such individuals do indeed exist, it’s probable they are not nearly as prevalent as he insists; such a statement exemplifies how completely out of proportion his head is in relation to the rest of his body.

Melancholy youth have always been Gibbard’s target audience, regardless of what he claims. To discount his fanbase’s devotion would be a mistake, but people outside of America’s high schools shell out $15 for this dreck? Quoth album closer “The Ice Is Getting Thinner”: “We’re not the same, dear / As we used to be / The season’s have changed / And so have we.” I mean, what the fuck?

This is essentially Plans (2005) projected onto an IMAX screen, overinflated with more of Gibbard’s hot air, keyboard atmospherics frequently replacing the pseudo-propulsive guitar parts and stripped down acoustic sections, aping Gibbard’s work with the Postal Service while the band attempts to reproduce Dntel’s spaced-out atmospherics to underwhelming result. It’s a predictable formula, a majority of the tracks building to a triumphant climax set to an egg timer, peppered with forced witticisms, seemingly culled from Postsecret, that have reached a new apex of laziness; he apparently writes his lyrics these days with a method akin to the one depicted in the South Park episode mocking Family Guy (insert childhood imagery [i.e. swingset], body part [i.e. fingers], and sentimental phrase [i.e. “I will possess your heart”], press blend). It incites drowsiness more than anything resembling emotion: instrumental Ambien.

An argument can be made that a particular artist’s demeanor shouldn’t affect one’s perception of their work, that how an artist conducts him- or herself in interviews and interactions with fans is entirely independent from the sounds emanating from the speakers. Billy Corgan, for example, is a famous, critically lauded asshole but his egotistical ways didn’t impugn Siamese Dream‘s (1993) brilliance. Then trace the timeline a bit further: Corgan’s ego eventually led to the Smashing Pumpkins’ disbandment and (shudder) Zwan, and as the quality of the music declined, negative comments about Corgan’s arrogance began to crop up in criticisms of his music.

Gibbard has arguably never achieved such heights (though this snooze is running up the charts like whoa), but his band’s efforts have markedly decreased in quality in each successive outing, growing staler in each passing year, his lyrics becoming considerably more mundane as he continues to lean upon the same half-sentiments, invoking eye-rolling and mild nausea. Leaving the listener with nothing to delve into musically, one is left only to ponder the depths of his ego—which becomes increasingly relevant as his music becomes insultingly simplistic—and if the material he’s releasing can reach a level of apathy that will drive away even his pubescent fans. The anticipation is killing me.

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