Listening to Codes And Keys, Death Cab For Cutie’s seventh album, is an off-putting experience if you’re familiar with the band’s work (and who isn’t, really?). That’s not to say the album is poor; in fact, it’s probably the group’s best effort since the excellent (and difficult to pronounce) Transatlanticism. As hinted at by the new record’s name, it is a piano-centered endeavor, with Chris Walla’s guitar mostly resigned to the background. This is Ben Gibbard’s album, for better or (rarely) worse. A neat production trick for Codes And Keys is employed on his voice—it is moved back and forth in the mix repeatedly, creating a filter-like effect that combines with some of the best lyrics the band has written.
“You Are A Tourist” was a smart choice for the lead single: most similar to the band’s earlier work, it features a relatively normal arrangement along with Gibbard’s high/slightly-less-high vocal contrasts guiding the listener throughout the track. It also includes Death Cab’s most memorable riff since “Title And Registration,” as Walla’s guitar has its shining moment. It’s infectious and sweet, a great representation of the album as a whole. It also serves as a segue into the best track on the record, the six minute “Unobstructed Views.” What is it with Death Cab and long songs of epic quality? Whether it was its first album’s closer, “Line Of Best Fit,” or Transatlanticism’s gorgeous title track, or even Narrow Stairs’ one shining moment, the stalker-y “I Will Possess Your Heart,” it appears that Gibbard and co. know how to write excess right.
Here, “Unobstructed Views” opens with a hauntingly simple piano and bass line that slowly evolves and grows until Gibbard’s voice kicks in around the three minute mark. The listener has been lulled into a false sense of sleep, perhaps even thinking of the track as an instrumental. Instead, in comes the lyric “there’s no one in the sky, just our love/no one unobstructed view, no perfect views/just our love, just our love.”
The album closes as solidly as it began, with the jaunty “Portable Television” shining as the best track of the second half, excluding the upbeat finale, “Stay Young, Go Dancing.” Despite normally closing albums with a sad and contemplative track, Death Cab goes for smiles here as the track is bound by a twinkling set of keys (codes are nowhere to be found) and a snare-filled drum line that beckons for lovers to dance closely with each other. That’s the type of music that the band knocks out of the park: music for lovers to do romantic things to. On Codes And Keys, those lovers are encouraged to be happy—an emotion that sometimes has evaded Death Cab. Perhaps we can thank Zooey Deschanel, Gibbard’s wife, for the new mood.