Narrow Is the Way
Narrow Stairs, Death Cab for Cutie’s follow up to platinum-selling Plans, is the work of a mature band in command of its materials. The quartet packs this May 2008 release with tuneful music and literate lyrics.
All four members of the band share co-writing credits on the hit single, “I Will Possess Your Heart.” The abridged radio version, although catchy, does not quite reveal how the music reinforces the point of the lyrics. “You gotta spend some time, love, / You gotta spend some time with me,” Benjamin Gibbard sings in the chorus, while the track stretches out for almost nine minutes. Listeners lulled by his earnest delivery may miss the undercurrent of ambiguity: perhaps this lover is really a stalker.
Melancholy suffuses the entire album, even when that emotion is undercut by the music. The brisk, upbeat number, “No Sunlight,” deals with the loss of idealism that often accompanies maturity. And on “You Can Do Better than Me,” Chris Walla, the band’s lead guitarist and in-house producer, festoons the tale of a loser clinging to his girlfriend with a full-blown wall-of-sound arrangement.
But all of this is mere cleverness when compared to the album’s two exemplary songs: “Cath” and “Grapevine Fires.” “Cath” is a bitter farewell to a former lover taking refuge in marriage to a “well-intentioned man.” “The whispers that it won’t last roll up and down the pews,” Gibbard sings, while squalling guitars make his contempt visceral. “Grapevine Fires,” ostensibly about wildfires threatening So Cal, represents Death Cab’s talent in adult contemporary mode. Drummer Jason McGerr lays down a snappy beat over mellow electric piano and sweet harmonies. “We bought some wine and some paper cups / near your daughter’s school and we picked her up;” Gibbard sings of two lovers settling down to watch the encroaching fire from higher ground.
Lost, lonely people populate this record, but there is hope. The rhythm section jabs and feints; the dynamics shift; and one can almost discern the beginnings of self-knowledge underneath Gibbard’s sincere persona.