Ben Gibbard had a lot to get out of his system between Death Cab For Cutie’s 2008 record, Narrow Stairs, and its latest release, Codes And Keys. Namely, whatever personal demons inspired Narrow Stairs, a return to Death Cab’s dependable early-’00s form that plays, at turns, as cathartic, spiteful, and remorseful. It wouldn’t have been hard for the frontman to sound more chipper on Codes And Keys, and being sober for three years and married to Zooey Deschanel for two certainly lifted some weight from Gibbard’s chest. The new record is missing some of Stairs’ emotional heft, but Gibbard and the band offset it with a broadened sonic palette.
Like a lot of post-clean-up records (the celebratory Lou Reed of New Sensations comes to mind), Codes And Keys sports a shiny surface. Gibbard’s pet lyrical obsessions still lurk beneath all those plinking pianos and swaying strings, however: Purging flames lick at the opening track, “Home Is A Fire,” while elsewhere, wanderlust is both invoked lyrically (“You Are A Tourist”) and implied musically (the motorik-driven “Doors Unlocked And Opened”). The record stops for death, too—though the mantra-like refrain of “St. Peter’s Cathedral” (“There’s nothing past this”) indicates a reevaluated fascination with the topic. Even an old sparring partner like Los Angeles is viewed from a fresh perspective, with Death Cab’s poisoned valentine to the city, “Why You’d Want To Live Here,” receiving a bouncy, attitude-adjusted callback on the album-closer, “Stay Young, Go Dancing.”
Considering the positive developments in Gibbard’s life, it’s a wonder “Stay Young, Go Dancing” is the closest Codes And Keys comes to googly-eyed sentimentality. Longtime Death Cab fans may chafe at the record’s brighter moments, but it’s a more rewarding experience than the band’s previous stab at a “pop” record, 2005’s Plans. Besides, Codes And Keys’ centerpiece, “Unobstructed Views,” is a spacey slice of ambient agnosticism. The man at the mic may be in love with a movie star, but some things still keep him up at night.