A reviewer once called Narrow Stairs “unquestionably the best thing [Death Cab] had ever done.” While I would ask this reviewer if he had ever listened to Transatlanticism, I would agree that Narrow Stairs is the darkest and most ambitious thing they had ever done, sometimes with more in common with Radiohead than with the rest of their catalogue.
For instance, there’s the feedbacking noise-rock final coda of the hard rock opener “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” the eight-minute Can-inspired anthem of unrequited love “I Will Possess Your Heart,” the drum-heavy, electric piano led “Grapevine Fires,” the Eastern-tinged rocker “Pity and Fear”…and so on.
As guitarist/producer Chris Walla described it, the album has teeth—drums pound harder, guitars distort and feedback more than they did on anything before, and Gibbard’s lyrics are darker than ever (and darker than he would want to go again, by his own admission).
But this heavy darkness, as often as it pays off, also detracts from the jangling sweetness and nostalgia that made Transatlanticism such a classic. Even the best tracks here fail to reach the same highs of their best record, and the weakest tracks (the over-dramatic baroque pop of “You Can Do Better Than Me,” the super-happy-sounding-very-sad song “No Sunlight”) fall lower than anything on Trans or Plans. Chris Walla’s hands-off production also removes the atmosphere that Trans and Plans existed in, which is a great detriment.
In the end, it’s not a terrible album, but it’s definitely more of a 7.8 than an 8. And that MTV reviewer has no idea what he’s talking about.