A decade or so ago, Death Cab for Cutie was a lovable little band making lovable albums with the precocious titles Something About Airplanes and We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes that had little to do thematically with the sad but melodic songs that filled them.
Much has changed since then. Death Cab is no longer a little band of any sort, and its albums are part of a broader evolution, evidenced by the titles of the past two: Narrow Stairs, released three years ago, and Codes and Keys, which came out in May. These days, the titles are very much connected to the music. Narrow Stairs' songs captured that sense of halted motion and treacherous passage. Codes and Keys is not an antidote so much as it is the other side of a coin, representing an openness and safe passage.
Together they represent an admirable breadth of tone for Ben Gibbard and his band, who appear to be uninterested in doing the same thing twice. Gibbard says he's still fond of Stairs, but when the time came to make a new album, he wanted to avoid the previous album's "no sunlight, no sunlight" mantra. "I realized I really couldn't go any further down that gloomy direction without becoming a parody of myself as a songwriter," he says.
Between the albums, he says, he also sobered up and got married. The generalization is that Codes and Keys is his "happy" album — and by comparison to the band's other recordings, it is lighter — but it's more complex in its mood than simply being sprightly. There's an anxiety in some of the songs that serves as a counterpoint to some of the sunnier vibes. "I think any time you move into a new stage in your life, there's going to be a nervousness within you about that," Gibbard says. "I hope you can feel that in the record. I think it's a more balanced kind of album."
Guitarist and producer Chris Walla also helped to nudge the band into new places, downplaying guitars on the album for more keyboards and electronics. Even Gibbard's vocals sound different this time; occasionally he layers them into a harmony with himself, which on close listen reveals the influence of one of his favorite vocal groups, the Louvin Brothers. Gibbard says his wife, New Girl actress and She & Him singer Zooey Deschanel, has him better attuned to harmonies.
Charting an adventurous course, especially for a band that cultivated such a devoted early following, will inevitably create protest. But Death Cab has done an admirable job increasing its ranks without sending its core audience packing. "I feel blessed, knock on wood, that there doesn't seem to be one album everybody hates," he says. "Or maybe there is, and I'm blissfully ignorant of it. But I don't think we've made a universally panned album. I'm sure if we stick around long enough, we will. But it'd be nice to avoid that for as long as we can."
He brings up R.E.M., which recently broke up after 30 years. Gibbard was trading messages with a fan who first saw that band in 1996 and thus weighted their '90s output higher than the '80s albums that Gibbard, 35, grew up admiring. "It was a good reminder that the way we bond with music has to do with where we are in our lives at that time," Gibbard says. "Only when a band ceases to exist do you look back at its catalog and assess the whole thing and think about your emotional attachment to certain records."
Death Cab — which tours the West Coast and Europe next — has been together 14 years. Gibbard has seen consensus change about his band's work during that span. "When Plans came out, I heard from people who hated it," he says. "A few years later, it's the best one we've ever made. You experience these feelings in real time, but they do change over time."
Which is Gibbard's rationale for trying different things. Should someone want maximum maudlin, there's Narrow Stairs, which can be played and replayed, the benefit of an album being a reusable commodity.
And so Codes and Keys closes with a song unique in Death Cab's catalog. Stay Young, Go Dancing feels celebratory.
"We've never had a song that — 'straightforward' sounds a little demeaning — but a love song without any subtext," he says. "There's no reading between the lines for a deeper concept. And I have to admit, I felt a little self- conscious about it. I felt uncomfortable sharing it."
Gibbard and Walla toyed with the idea of putting the song toward the beginning of the album, but they feared that would be too jarring to listeners. An album band in a download era, Death Cab decided instead to position the song as the final word on its most hopeful album yet.
"With the exception of The Photo Album, it seems like our albums always end with a slow dirge," Gibbard says, laughing. "So it felt nice to try something so foreign. It's pretty simple. Just a love song from start to finish."