When asked to describe Death Cab For Cutie’s sixth studio album, Narrow Stairs, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Chris Walla characterizes it as “having teeth,” and we can’t think of a more apt summarization of the disc. While many bands in Death Cab For Cutie’s situation would try to recreate the success of hit songs like “Soul Meets Body” or “I Will Follow You Into The Dark,” instead the band have crafted the most ambitious and varied album of their career by simply doing what they’ve been doing since they formed in Bellingham, Washington a decade ago – made a brilliant record that refuses to pander, while stretching the artistic boundaries of what a Death Cab For Cutie record should sound like.
After spending much of 2006 in the midst of a turbulent tour cycle surrounding their RIAA platinum, Grammy-nominated album Plans, the band took a well-deserved break during the first part of 2007. Frontman Ben Gibbard embarked on his first-ever solo tour; guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Chris Walla released a solo album and produced records for acts like Tegan And Sara; drummer Jason McGerr constructed his own recording studio, Two Sticks; and bassist Nick Harmer, as always seems to be the case, worked on various projects. If Plans was a collection of firsts – Death Cab’s first album for a major label; the first disc to feature songwriting contributions from someone other than Gibbard; the first Death Cab disc recorded with the same drummer as the one before – Narrow Stairs feels more like home.
The decision to record the new album at McGerr’s Two Sticks, Walla’s studio Alberta Court, and long-time friend John Vanderslice’s studio Tiny Telephone allowed the band to abandon self-conscious tendencies in order to craft the most creative album of their career. “I wanted more than anything to create a professional studio that was also somewhere that was comfortable to hang out in,” says McGerr about the conception and construction of Two Sticks (which was designed largely with the Narrow Stairs sessions in mind). “To do that, I had to take into account what we all love and hate about the studios we’ve been to, and make it comfortable enough to spend five or six weeks there at a time without feeling homesick.” That environment, combined with the heightened amount of collaboration on the new songs, makes Narrow Stairs the climactic culmination of Death Cab’s first ten years.
While much of this is due to the musical and emotional relationship the current quartet have developed over the last few years of playing, singing, and touring together, it can also be attributed to the environment Narrow Stairs was tracked in. According to Harmer, the album was recorded “with all of us sitting in a room looking at each other,” making the sessions seem more like a typical band practice than a high-budget recording. And listening back to these eleven songs, there’s a level of intimacy that couldn’t have been attained any other way. “There was a lot of talk about what we wanted to accomplish as a rhythm section,” Harmer continues, adding that he took acoustic bass lessons in order to stretch out on the record. “I just wanted to think of my instrument in a different way.”
Recorded entirely on two-inch tape (thus limiting the amount of overdubs), the result is an album that captures Death Cab For Cutie’s live sound – a process that was scary for the band at times. “There’s stuff on this album that makes each of us uncomfortable performance-wise,” explains Walla, adding that the happy accidents – such as tripping over a cable and unplugging Harmer’s bass on “I Will Possess Your Heart” – turned out to be some of his favorite moments on the disc. “We spend an overwhelming amount of time as a band playing live together, so it doesn’t really make sense not to approach our recording the same way,” Gibbard adds. The live feel of the recording not only affected the way the songs were put to tape but also the way they were arranged, making for the band’s most aggressive record to date.
The opening track, “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” is an excellent overreaching metaphor for the sonic scope of Narrow Stairs: The song begins somewhat characteristically, with Gibbard’s singing about “descending a dusty gravel ridge” over an ebbing bed of subdued synthesizers and chiming guitars… but halfway through the track, the song unexpectedly veers into a syncopated drum-and-guitar breakdown aided by Harmer’s low-frequency melody line. These types of aural experiments take the approach of such Plans songs as “What Sarah Said” to dazzling new heights, whether it’s the eight-and-a-half-minute-long first single, “I Will Possess Your Heart,” or the carefree orchestral waltz, “You Can Do Better Than Me.”
“Narrow Stairs was the title Nick came up with, and I think it lends itself to a lot of the lyrical content,” explains Gibbard when asked about some of the themes of the record. “It doesn’t connate descension or ascension – and I think that by giving it some physical limitations in describing it as narrow, it leaves a lot more open to interpretation.” While subtle details like “softly snowing televisions” help the listener paint a vivid mental picture, ultimately the characters are the souls of these songs – whether the protagonist is giving away his Queen-sized bed out of desperation or searching under an abandoned bridge for a non-existent revelation.
Then there’s the aforementioned “You Can Do Better Than Me,” a lingering paean to relationship insecurities that shows how Gibbard has grown as a lyricist. “I think Ben’s lyrics will fall deep into the minds of many who think alike, but can’t find the courage to speak honestly and openly,” explains McGerr. “In other words, if the thought that you’ll never be worthy of a better mate hasn’t passed through your mind at some point in your life, no matter how fleetingly, you’re either lying or unable to articulate it.” While the content of the album is dark at times, Gibbard manages to express his melancholy musings with a sparkling – and sometimes subtle – dose of hopefulness.
“If you can’t stand in place, you can’t tell who’s walking away,” Gibbard croons on Narrow Stairs’ penultimate track, “Pity And Fear” – and while that’s true, Death Cab For Cutie have taken a giant step forward both creatively and conceptually with this album. While it hasn’t been an easy road to get to this point, Death Cab For Cutie insist that more than anything, this next chapter in the band’s evolution is due to the fact that they’re relating both as individuals and band mates. “To think that tension is adding to the music isn’t true for us,” Gibbard explains, citing notoriously at-odds acts like Fleetwood Mac and Metallica. “It’s easier for us to make good music when we’re all relating to each other and getting along.”