Review Summary: Death Cab observes the similarity between “playing it safe” and “playing it smart.”
Death Cab For Cutie is, for better or worse, one of those bands that will always be remembered for a single album despite having a lengthy catalogue of great material. Every post-Transatlanticism album will forever be known as “not as good as Transatlanticism” and sadly, there is very little Death Cab can do about it. It’s a shame we have to go through this once every couple of years because, in all seriousness, both Plans and Narrow Stairs were very solid releases. So before we go any farther we have to say, yet again, Death Cab’s latest release is not as good as Transatlanticism. Surprised? Nope? Glad we got that out of the way.
But that’s not to say Codes and Keys is just another Death Cab album. Codes and Keys pulses and sways with an energy and vigor one might say they lost with at least Narrow Stairs. Gibbard and company are in their element--both creatively and emotionally. Codes and Keys is significantly less angsty (a relative term, keep in mind who we are talking about here) than some other Death Cab work, but that’s not to say it’s completely flowery. If anything it’s emotionally unattached, which oddly enough works pretty well. Laced with swagger and confidence, Codes and Keys is prepared to take on the biggest arenas while staying completely album-oriented and smooth. There are obviously highlights and singles; “You Are a Tourist” is a terrific lead single featuring one of the catchiest riffs of the year, “Stay Young, Go Dancing” is a clever and fun closer almost serving as the joyous conjugate to “Stable Song” or, dare I say it, “A Lack of Color,” and “Unobstructed Views” is a slow moving epic unabashedly in the same vein as “What Sarah Said” or “I Will Possess Your Heart.” But really any song on Codes and Keys, especially tracks 7-11, could just as easily be a single, yet all flow perfectly with each other. It is in this way that Death Cab writes both the singles the passing fan wants and the album the diehard fan wants simultaneously.
Guitars are for the most part replaced with atmospheric and moody synths and drum beats. Gibbard’s voice is as prominent as one should expect, but even the frontman doesn’t steal the show. Each track builds subtly, adding layer after layer. It’s clear that either a lot of care was put into each song, or possibly the opposite, allowing each song to evolve organically. It’s certainly a grower, not because there’s too much to pick up on first listen, but quite simply because it takes a couple listens to release that there isn’t
more to pick up on and that this exactly what Death Cab meant to bring to the table: simple, really well-written songs. This isn’t a career defining release by any means, but just another entry into an already prolific discography.
So again let’s take stock. No, it’s not the next Transatlanticism. It’s not an attempt even. Death Cab For Cutie recognizes their strengths and plays off them. Codes and Keys is easily better than Narrow Stairs and even might give Plans a run for it’s money as Death Cab’s finest post-Trans. It’s smart, clever, subtle, professional, and ultimately, vastly successful.