This review has no chance of being entirely objective. You see, as a 15-year-old only allowed to listen to Christian rock and oldies, Death Cab was one of the first “real” bands I ever listened to. The nostalgia-force is so strong with me that I fear Ben Gibbard’s sensitive vocal affectations will forever transport me to my friend Alex’s pickup truck, cruising down I-35 with the windows down in tenth grade and hearing my first taste of what music could mean outside of Steven Curtis Chapman or the Big Bopper.
With that said, and trying to judge purely on sonic and lyrical merits, “Codes and Keys” is wonderful.
Much has been written of how this album reflects a new life for Gibbard, one where he has quit drinking, started jogging and married Zooey “Collective Indie Crush” Deschanel, and in the process, found a happiness that just couldn’t be contained by the pained, melancholy earnestness of “Transatlanticism” and other classic Death Cab albums. There’s a great reason for this, and it’s because “Codes and Keys” sounds like a Death Cab that is growing up — whatever that’s supposed to mean.
Representative of this older, more sober band is the single “You Are a Tourist” (if you listen to alternative radio, you’ve heard it). It’s a cut that is no less hopelessly honest and certainly no less poetic than anything else in Gibbard’s discography, but there’s a buoyancy to it that’s fresh. With lyrics urging of moving on from doubt and, of course, defining your own destination when “you feel just like a tourist in the city you were born in,” it’s clear that this is a Death Cab that is done sitting on the floor of a one bedroom apartment, marinating in ennui. This is a Death Cab that’s picking itself up and taking the listener with them.
Don’t assume that “Codes and Keys” is totally jubilant, however. The album fits snugly into the band’s milieu, with an underlying menace threaded throughout, particularly in the title track. You’re not going to be hearing any of these tracks in an Applebee’s commercial tomorrow, unless the neighborhood bar’s sizzling fajita recipe takes a fascinatingly dark turn.
But it’s a treat to hear the new can-do Gibbard vibe come out in tracks like “Some Boys,” an almost danceable Yeasayer-like indictment of the Y-chromosome, and “Underneath the Sycamore,” a dreamy tune with electro-pop flavors and the welcome ghost of “Soul Meets Body” haunting the background. “Sycamore,” in fact, could be the standout track of the album. And “Stay Young, Go Dancing,” all full of strings and pianos and dewey 1960s-style drums, just sounds like Gibbard let his bride possess his body and compose a Death Cab song. I would kill a man to hear She & Him cover it.
If there’s a weak point in “Codes and Keys,” it’s certainly the middle. Though not bad by any means, it’s where the momentum and purpose start to falter for a bit. “Unobstructed Views,” while certainly not bad, is trying very hard to be the “Transatlanticism” of this album. It never quite gets there.
I can’t quite accuse “Codes and Keys” of being triumphant and soaring, but it’s certainly assured and optimistic. Like any good band, Death Cab’s sound has evolved with its audience. If you’re not done moping, cue up “What Sarah Said” again and have a good cry. If you want to face the world armed with all of life’s experiences, give this album a spin.
(3) “Some Boys”
(5) “You Are a Tourist”
(9) “Underneath the Sycamore”
(11) “Stay Young, Go Dancing”