In Pursuit of Happiness
The latest release from Washington’s Death Cab for Cutie is markedly different from the band’s older material. It’s almost…happy. Codes and Keys is more varied in tempo and texture, exploring poppy, percussive soundscapes and delving into electronic effects. Death Cab began to experiment with these on 2008’s Narrow Stairs, trying out a little lighter material than the characteristic (but poignant) melancholia of Transatlanticism and Plans. Codes and Keys is the result of this progression, albeit with an extra dose of cheer.
The single “You are a Tourist” is notoriously catchy and upbeat, based around a bright guitar riff and lyrics about youthful wanderlust. Compared to “Title and Registration,” it’s downright jolly. The album’s title track sounds like much of Narrow Stairs, buoyant but still a bit gloomy. “Portable Television” has a jouncy Beatlesque piano melody and bright bells.
“Stay Young Go Dancing,” perhaps the most uncharacteristic track on the album, is an all-out whimsical love song. It’s a serenade, with warm acoustic guitar and sweet, almost cliché lyrics—we never thought we’d hear a lovestruck Ben Gibbard crooning, “When she sings I hear a symphony.” However trite such sentiments may seem, they still manage to be refreshing on Codes and Keys.
But that isn’t to say it’s all fun and sunshine. “Monday Morning,” one of the album’s best selections, rather transparently disguises its melancholy with a catchy synth melody and laid-back lo-fi effects. While it feels like a fairly happy pop track, Gibbard lets us know “the night is gonna fall and the vultures will surround you.” The sadness is still there, just somewhat alleviated and distilled into Death Cab’s melodic mastery. “Unobstructed Views” acts the same way. Composed largely of long piano passages, its resonant bassy chords subtly shift from meditative to a dissonant, brooding minor key that feels urgent and ominous. Yet the song is ultimately a monument to love, multifaceted and complex.
“St. Peter’s Cathedral” shows off the band’s command of harmonic arrangements, starting off with lo-fi, fuzzy bells tolling solemnly behind Gibbard’s plaintive tenor and building to a lush, expansive sound. “Some Boys” is engulfed in hazy effects and heavy reverb, but the song’s irresistible melodies surge up through the noise in the vocals and piano.
Not every moment of Codes and Keys is a masterpiece, but it’s a brilliantly constructed album, dynamic in structure and content, catchy and enjoyable. Death Cab for Cutie could spend the rest of their days writing the kind of depressing, quiet songs that made We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes or Transatlanticism great, and they’d still be good songs. But Codes and Keys shows the band growing and progressing in new directions.