Record #476: Death Cab For Cutie – Codes and Keys (2011)

codes and keys.jpgBeing a well-loved indie darling is something of a double-edged sword. You can either suffer in anonymity while your immense talent fails to find the appreciation it deserves, or you can find widespread success and get labeled a sell-out.

And ever since hopping on a major-label with Plansevery new Death Cab For Cutie album has been treated with speculation and dismissal.

It’s not hard to find hipsters who call Transatlanticism the last good Death Cab album. At times, I even find myself feeling that way. Which is nonsense, because Plans is almost as good, and I loved Narrow StairsBut even my continued faith in Gibbard & Co. was tested by Codes and Keys (and Kintsugi, which I maybe gave half a listen one time). And if you read my review of Transatlanticism, you can see how quickly I was to dismiss it.

So when a friend of mine recently insisted that Codes and Keys was the best Death Cab album since Transatlanticism—yes, even better than Plans—I took notice. But wait—didn’t they phone it in? Wasn’t it marred with Ben Gibbard’s misguided efforts to sing beyond his delicate voice’s capabilities? Because I remember watching the video for “You Are a Tourist” and thinking, “this is it. They’ve finally lost it.”

But my friend’s hottest of takes stuck in my mind. So when it popped up in my Amazon recommendations for a very low price, I bought it on an impulse. I was unconvinced that I would enjoy it, but I paid little enough that I felt comfortable with the gamble.

And that gamble paid off.

While I won’t make the outrageous claim that this is better than Plans, it’s certainly a strong record. The opener, “Home Is a Fire” rides an urgent shuffle with asymmetrical time changes. “Doors Unlocked And Open” is an In Rainbows-esque rocker that takes the Krautrocky energy of “I Will Possess Your Heart” and condenses it to a tight six minutes. Even “You Are a Tourist,” the very single that led me to dismiss this record, is one of the better pop songs they’ve written. The ambient pulse of “Unobstructed Views,” with a three-minute intro, is the most patient ballad they’ve ever written

There are flashes of Beatles-esque piano (more “Don’t Pass Me By” than “Hey Jude”), but they don’t fall as flat as “You Can Do Better Than Me.” Much of this is thanks to Jason McGerr, whose restless drum beats are the strong backbone of the record.

While I won’t rush to call it their best since Transatlanticism, this isn’t the record I thought I was ignoring. And for any other hipsters waiting for their favorite indie darlings to finally put out a bad record, this isn’t it. Maybe Kintsugi is that record, I dunno. But this is easily as enjoyable as Narrow Stairs—maybe even a little better.

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