What happened to Ben Gibbard? On Death Cab for Cutie’s latest offering, “Codes & Keys,” the band’s typically sad sack frontman sounds — could it be? — downright cheery.
Gone are the days of lamenting love lost (or never found in the first place). Throughout “Codes and Keys,” even when addressing these themes, Gibbard — now happily married to actress/singer Zooey Deschanel — seems like more of an outside observer, with the songs often referring to an ambiguous “you” rather than his typical first-person narrative. On previous efforts, the singer likely would have sympathized and even identified with the characters described in tracks like “Some Boys” — who “don’t know how to love” or “are singing the blues.” Here, it sounds like he’s looking at them with pity.
Musically, the songs are good, but none packs the emotional gut-punch of some earlier offerings. Event the strongest moments on “Codes and Keys” — including the head-nodding title track, which features lush strings, and the moody, slow-building “Doors Unlocked and Open” — don’t live up to the best material on any of the band’s previous efforts. Gibbard’s gooey lovesickness becomes a bit much on the drippy “Unobstructed Views” (“There’s no light / in the sky / just our love”). Production-wise, guitarist Chris Walla returns to the helm and stretches the band’s musical boundaries to unprecedented limits. Every instrument, vocals included, gets the effects treatment.
Self-reflection and paradigm shifts are big themes on the record. Not the least of these is related to Gibbard’s re-examination of Los Angeles. It wasn’t too long ago that he was observing of the city where he now resides, “I can’t see why you’d want to live here.”
At other times, Gibbard sounds like he’s attempting to throw his name into consideration as a possible replacement for Oprah— or at the very least, penning a draft of a self-help manual. On the downright hopeful-sounding first single, “You Are a Tourist,” he notes, “When you find yourself a villain in the story you have written, it’s plain to see / that sometimes the best intentions are in need of redemptions, would you agree?”
“Codes and Keys” makes it clear that Gibbard has truly found domestic bliss. But for longtime fans who appreciated his knack for making heartbreak flow from the speakers and envelop the listener in its warm embrace, the album might be a tough pill to swallow.
Genre: Indie rock
Label: Atlantic Records