Review Summary: Narrow Stairs is an excellent, varied indie-pop album hindered by inconsistency.
Death Cab for Cutie get a lot of bad press from all directions. For one thing, they're incredibly easy targets for people who disparage indie-pop as faux-hipster garbage: they have the crummy band name, the melodramatic lyrics, and especially the female teenage fanbase. For another, their own fans usually track their decline from 2003's Transatlanticism
as fairly linear from album to album. While there is some value in that opinion, Narrow Stairs
is not a record that should be brushed aside by any means as a late-era mediocre Death Cab album. It contains some of the band's best material, interspersed with some of their least essential (and most tediously self-indulgent) work, and what it lacks in consistency it more than makes up for in surprising ambition.
It's easy to pick out problems with Narrow Stairs
. There's an eight-minute song. The last two tracks are boring. Every time Ben Gibbard records vocals they sound more exaggerated than the last. These added onto the aforementioned targets make it too easy to treat the album like a last swing at artistic relevance. They aren't wrong, but there's so much strong material here that it deserves a listen. Interestingly, considering its ambition and variance, Narrow Stairs
is immediately rewarding. Some of Death Cab's most appealing "single-bait" is here; what "Long Division" and "Cath..." lack in depth they more than make up for in catchiness and charm, the former especially being a personal favourite. At the same time, "I Will Possess Your Heart" demands the right environment to be anything more than pretty but a bit long.
This band always aspired to present emotional vulnerability in a way that would directly connect the listener to Gibbard's lyrics, but on Narrow Stairs
it's interesting how often Gibbard is a bystander. "Cath...", "Long Division", "Your New Twin-Sized Bed", and to a lesser extent "Bixby Canyon Bridge" all present an observer's perspective, and Gibbard's talents for description and metaphors make this a successful transition. While to overly analyze the lyrics would take far to long, suffice to say that it's a genuinely sad album lyrically, thankfully contrasted by a Smiths-esque peppy instrumental section. The musical variety of the album, bouncing from peppy indie-rock to jazz to vintage pop to who knows what, often within songs is different from anything the band has released previously. There is a bit of an over-reliance on bouncy old-timey pop (I can't hear "You Can Do Better Than Me" without Zooey Deschanel popping into my head), but a strength of the variety is that no two songs sound too alike. If you don't like "No Sunlight", "Cath..." is completely different. Even the two connected tracks, "You Can Do Better Than Me" and the album highlight "Grapevine Fires" are divorced tonally and genre-wise. Despite the mish-mash of styles, the production is still superb, but specific mention must be given to Nick Harmer, whose bass work is constantly outstanding throughout the record.
While there may be clear problems with Narrow Stairs
, it more than compensates. While less straight-forward and "Death Cab-y" than Plans
, it contains some of the best work done by the band, and remains a consistently pleasant listen even in the moments when not overly compelling. While the compilation-type organization may sacrifice cohesiveness and consistency, it does make for an enjoyable listen, and an album that should absolutely not be overlooked by fans of the band's work.