Just because you’re living somewhere doesn’t mean it’s home. As the common idiom states, “Home is where the heart is”. In that sense, the place doesn’t so much matter because it’s what and who you have with you that defines home. Many explorers throughout the ages have gone on quests, journeys and adventures seeking new lands and uncharted territories. It was the sense of the untouched, the discovery of something new that was a driving force, but for many it was also a case of wanderlust. You keep moving from place to place in the hopes that you’ll eventually reach a destination that suits you so well you never want to leave. Some restless people find it while plenty of others do not, destined to keep moving for the rest of their lives. But there are also some that are comfortable with where they are. They’ve got a great job, family close by, maybe even their own family, a lovely house in a lovely part of town, and they couldn’t envision uprooting any of that. Some would call those people lucky, while others might best define them as naive, only settled in because they have no idea that something better is out there. Death Cab for Cutie have written songs about places before, whether it was the anti-Los Angeles anthem “Why You’d Want to Live Here” or direct references to locations like “Lowell, MA” and “Coney Island”. They’ve traveled around the world touring in support of six previous records, and you might think that would help them best define where the best place to settle down might be. It’s fascinating then that the guys picked up stakes and moved away from their home state of Washington, relocating to L.A. instead. Sure, with their ever-increasing popularity and a major label record deal in pocket they could afford to live in a city filled with Hollywood glitz and glamour, but it does seem like the antithesis of what they (or at least Ben Gibbard) were strongly against a mere 10 years ago. Times change and people change too, particularly Gibbard, who in the three years since the band’s last record “Narrow Stairs” made the decision to give up drinking and then got married to actress Zooey Deschanel. Both those things appear to have improved his mood significantly on the new Death Cab album “Codes and Keys”, but while his outlook may be sunnier, there’s still an undercurrent of restlessness present on many of the songs. Los Angeles may be growing on him, but that’s not stopping him from searching for a place he truly feels can be defined as home.
If you’ve spent any significant amount of time in Los Angeles, you’ll know that in most places you go, access is king. Having the right code or the proper key will often get you past the proverbial “velvet rope”. “With walls/built up around us/the bricks make me nervous/they’re only so strong, love,” Gibbard worries on opening track “Home Is A Fire”. The concern there is more about earthquakes, as more specifically defined in the song’s chorus, which has the lines, “Plates they will shift/houses will shake”. But his concern appears to be less about his own safety and more for those he loves and cares about, which is admirable. He’d rather live someplace else, only “there’s nowhere left to go”. Metaphorically speaking, the tectonic plates have already shifted, and Gibbard’s world has changed because of it. He’s become trapped beneath the rubble of Los Angeles, complete with its extensive gated communities and celebrity culture in which high walls, both physical and mental, are built to keep other people out rather than in. Holding others at a distance carries over into the “Codes and Keys” title track, though the subject matter deals more with two people trying to protect themselves from the rest of the world. “You’re on the floor/fearful of what’s outside your door/but the codes and keys/they can’t protect you from the pangs of jealousy,” sings Gibbard in one of his more empathetic tones. Trapping yourself inside a house doesn’t mean all the evil can’t get past your front door, and you can just as easily suffocate (go crazy) spending all your time in such an enclosed space. So the world and all it’s problems are essential to survival, but the lesson here is that relying on a partner to help you navigate such treacherous terrain can make it easier and better. On “Doors Unlocked and Open”, Gibbard brings up a lot of open road imagery, from “dotted lines/seas of concrete” to “mile markers/counting down”, seeming to seek a place of isolation. His ultimate conclusion, it seems, is that the only place where we can “be free with doors unlocked and open” is by going “down in the ocean of sound”. Apparently not even moving out of the “gilded crowns” of California can provide him with the safety and comfort he so desperately seeks. First single “You Are A Tourist” seeks to teach us a similar lesson, because, “if you feel just like a tourist/in the city you were born then it’s time to go/And define your destination/there’s so many different places to call home”.
Once “Codes and Keys” reaches its halfway point with “Unobstructed Views”, there appears to be a sea change that happens. The song itself is a tried and true ode to love and relationships, and one could certainly assume Gibbard wrote it with his wife in mind. In fact, for much of the second half of the album there are ruminations on love and being happy with a partner. By far the best written song on the entire record comes in the form of “Monday Morning”, primarily because it works in little details that you can tell have deep emotional significance attached to them. In providing comfort to his lady when she expresses concerns about growing older and her looks fading, Gibbard says, “But all these lines and greys refine/They are the maps of our design/of what began on a Monday morning”. And connecting the threads and overall theme the album seems to echo, lines like, “I am a bird that’s in need of grounding/I’m built to fly away/I never learned how to stay”, suggests that once he finally got into this relationship and found the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with, she helped him to find his home. As a wild animal roams the earth with no sense of place or direction, she brought him in from the wild and domesticated him, giving him something he never thought was possible before. This lesson is best taught in “Underneath the Sycamore”, in which Gibbard reflects on what this love has done to him. “Oh I was such a wretched man/Searching everywhere for a homeland/But now we are under the same sun/Feel it through the leaves let it heal us,” he sings knowingly. The final lines of the song mimic the final moments of a film or the last few pages of a book in how they appear to wrap up the storyline with relative neatness. After acknowledging that neither person in this relationship is perfect by any means, now they’re here under this sycamore tree, “Where we find our peace/This is where we are released”. What follows is more of a joyous epilogue, particularly on closing track “Stay Young, Go Dancing”. Given Gibbard’s previously admitted distaste for Los Angeles, it’s fitting he opens the song with the lines, “Life is sweet in the belly of the beast/and with her song in your heart/it can never bring you down”. The location might not be ideal, but his love for this woman protects him from whatever darkness might come their way. He also keeps things upbeat, trying to make sure we’re all aware that youth isn’t about how young you look on the outside, but how you feel on the inside. It’s the same sort of platitude echoed earlier about finding yourself a home – the location matters far less than the people and things you have as part of your life.
So after a close analysis purely based on the words that Ben Gibbard has written and without any sort of confirmation as to how autobiographical they might be, there is a whole other side to “Codes and Keys” that’s absolutely worth exploring: the actual sound of the record. Interviews with the band prior to the release of this album all say that there was a different approach to the instrumental side of this collection of songs. Inspired by more electronic-based recordings from Brian Eno, New Order and David Bowie, Death Cab for Cutie chose to scale back their use of guitars significantly this time around, focusing more on keyboards and other non-stringed instruments. There are some programmed beats in addition to the live drumming at different points, and you can even hear touches of things like electronic gurgles that would make you think of Radiohead’s “Kid A” if it weren’t so Death Cab-ish. Somehow the band has been able to keep their sound largely intact while playing around with a host of different melodies that are by no means guitar-centric. The electro skittering in the background on “Home Is A Fire” is one of the more exciting things in an otherwise subdued album opener, and something you might not notice unless you were paying close attention. There is some light orchestration on the title track that is a healthy addition to the pounding piano and drums that form the basis for the main melody. Even on a song like “Some Boys”, which features lyrics that feel like they belong on one of the last two Death Cab albums instead of this one, the pulsating electronic bits mixed with piano and only brief stabs of guitar turns the track into something rather winning and catchy. The opening instrumental portion of “Doors Unlocked and Open” has a really weird familiarity to it, almost like something you’d head in a hybrid between Broken Social Scene and The Dodos. Nick Harmer’s bass work on the track is particularly exceptional, and that driving force is what largely elevates the song to one of the album’s highlights. When “Unobstructed Views” shows up as the record’s six minute centerpiece, the purely electronic open makes it easy to recall Gibbard’s other project The Postal Service, but there’s also enough different about it to keep you from getting the two bands confused. The song’s spacey ambience and grand piano intensity provides a perfect turnkey melody signaling the shift from the aimless vagabond themes in part one to the earthbound focused love of part two. The buzzy synths and keyboards of “Monday Morning” succeed at keeping the melody light and airy, strongly matching the charm and whimsy felt at the start of a new relationship. The very sparse keyboards (and nothing else) in the first half of “St. Peter’s Cathedral” bring an air of intimacy to the track that carries over into the much fuller second half of the song. It’s no quiet acoustic of “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”, but it’s as close to a one-on-one moment Gibbard gets on this record. The acoustic guitar bounce of “Stay Young, Go Dancing”, with splashes of piano and strings really bring out the upbeat nature of the song and ensure that the record closes with the warmth of a wink and a smile from a really good friend.
The good, nay, great news about “Codes and Keys” is that it sounds a whole lot like a very revived Death Cab for Cutie. Like a professional athlete that was sidelined with an injury after three or four seasons, the band almost seemed like they were playing hurt the last couple records. Less pop-driven and even more depressing than usual, “Narrow Stairs” was a low for these guys, and perhaps a wake up call. They took their time, got proper bed rest, and committed to returning to the music game in full health. With this record, it appears they have succeeded. This is easily their best since “Transatlanticism”, and perhaps even earlier than that. What makes this album particularly challenging to judge however is trying to remove any personal bias from music created for everybody. Long time Death Cab fans will admit that as with most artists, certain albums can mean more or less to you depending on your own personal place in life at the time. If you heard “The Photo Album” for the first time in college back in the day and it strongly resonated with you, ten years later and with a 9-5 job “Codes and Keys” might not strike you on that same level. In all likelihood, it probably won’t. Or maybe you were 18 and thought “Plans” was insanely good back in 2005 and can’t “get into” the band’s earlier stuff. Don’t think that Ben Gibbard, Chris Walla, Nick Harmer and Jason McGerr are staying the same age either, though their grand hope is probably that as they grow old gracefully and add new twists to their own sound, that long time fans also growing older will be on that same path. In an ideal world new fans would keep the cycle going as well. The great news is that there is some significant growth from the band here, and that in itself is nice to hear. The more positive outlook in terms of lyrics and themes is nice as well. Are they doing enough of any of those things? Not really, but they’ve got a major label record contract to worry about, as well as fans they don’t want to take too far down the rabbit hole for fear of alienating them. So from the widest of widescreen viewpoints, Death Cab for Cutie have done well here. They’re firing on all cylinders once again, may peace and blessings be showered upon them. Now if only they’d do something about that far-too-scripted live show.