I feel like I’ve been waiting for Death Cab For Cutie to step up to the plate and produce a record that blows me away for the longest time. It seems as though they have produced some really grand songs, but have not necessarily excelled at making a cohesive album that strikes listeners with hit after hit, at least not for a long while. On Codes and Keys, it’s not a total wash, but it certainly does not fit the gripping and fantastic album that I’d hoped for.
While it is disappointing that this band did not miraculously intensify from their last release, it is still comforting to know that they know how to craft some good songs. If it’s any consolation to those long time fans of Death Cab, there isn’t much drastically different on this album. You have the bleak yet ever enticing vocals of Ben Gibbard, which serves as the distinctive quality for this band. The album starts with “Home Is a Fire,” on which you’d think that they’d begin with one of those knockouts, but instead you get a slow, crawling start, as if the band is reemerging from the depths of the three years since their last release. However, it comes across as a bit of a boring song for those who are fairly educated and familiar with the band’s sound.
Things don’t really get going until you reach “You Are a Tourist.” It’s classic Death Cab from the start: loops of Gibbard’s vocals echoing in the background, pragmatic and dignified drums and the semi-serene, on the verge of edgy, guitar. As I mentioned earlier, there is no doubt that this band knows how to make a killer pop song, and it is proven on this song, as well as later on “Monday Morning.” This track divulges the tale of a muse that Gibbard admires and then marvels at the simple events by which he met this darling female. It’s little gems like these songs that make me hold onto this band.
There are other tracks as good as these, some that are throwaways, and others that lie somewhere in the middle, leaving it up to you to make the decision whether they linger in your listening catalog. Such is the tradeoff of having a front man with such a distinctive vocal quality: it allows for some numbers to run together, or sound akin to another track that the band has already produced.
I don’t think that Codes and Keys is by any means a step back from their last record, but by no means is it a step up. Death Cab For Cutie seems to be fairly content with this ratio of excellent songs to mediocre, and if that ratio is cool with you, then listen away. After more than a decade it’s impressive that I am still drawn to their subtle indie-pop, which is a feat in itself.