The first single from the new Death Cab for Cutie album begins with a long wordless groove. It's practically prog, this swarm of shimmering keyboards, throbbing bass notes, and wandering guitars, and the sound builds, disarmingly, to a measured and chilling peak. At the 4 1/2-minute mark, when most rock tunes would have already come and gone, Ben Gibbard starts to sing.
"You gotta spend some time with me," enthuses the stalker - a tenor! - to his prey on "I Will Possess Your Heart," "and I know that you'll find love."
It's a perverse analogy, but Gibbard could be cajoling Death Cab's audience with those words, and with the quartet's seductive sprawl of a sixth studio album. "Narrow Stairs," out next Tuesday, is more than an artistic gesture. It's a statement of purpose from a onetime college-town indie band that is well on its way to becoming a real rarity in pop: an intrepid major-label rock group that demands autonomy and has the creative vision to back it up.
On 2005's "Plans," Death Cab, which headlines the WFNX Best Music Poll concert at
This time out the musical gambles are bolder and the outcome proportionally more dramatic. And the sweeping twists and turns don't feel calculated; on the contrary. Where "Plans" was an elaborately constructed production, "Narrow Stairs" - the band's sophomore effort for Atlantic Records - feels intuitive and visceral.
Gibbard has always been a dark, literate songwriter. Here he details crushed hopes and dead-end relationships with painterly precision, and guitarist Chris Walla - once again seated in the producer's chair - presides over a gorgeously rattled phalanx of churning strings, thrashing rhythms, swirling keys, and winsome melodies.
The most adventurous songs court a collision between texture and structure, tension and beauty, that evokes Radiohead. With no conventional pattern to settle into, "Bixby Canyon Bridge" is a one-way ticket to oblivion; the song erupts and vanishes like the protagonist's dashed dreams. "Pity and Fear," a sinuous slice of tabla-fueled paranoia, is a shape-shifting monster that grows fuzzed-up tentacles and sprouts quivering beats as the measures pile up.
But "Narrow Stairs" isn't an exercise in experimentation. For all of its fresh ideas, Death Cab is still in thrall to classic songcraft, the prettier and more disconsolate the better. "No Sunlight" is a bouncy pop-rocker about the death of optimism. "Cath. . .," a big-hearted anthem, deftly sketches a bride on the first day of her ill-fated marriage: "And as the flashbulbs burst, she holds a smile/ Like someone would hold a crying child."
An angelic choir of voices and celestial organ frame the penetrating images of "Grapevine Fires," where a man, his lover, and her child drive to a cemetery to picnic with prime views of a wildfire. "A wake-up call to a rented room sounded like an alarm of impending doom/ To warn us it's only a matter of time/ Before we all burn," Gibbard sings.
That sentiment echoes throughout the album, but don't let it get you down. The end is near, but the little girl in the song dances on graves while the flames spread, and so, in his way, does Gibbard.