"The Sound of Settling" is one of the more charming singles in Death Cab for Cutie's repertoire, all syncopated handclaps and a terrifically catchy "ba-ba" refrain, but the same title would work as an honest description of Codes and Keys, an understated affair which finds the band embracing their tried-and-true sound with few reservations. Following the morose and musically uneven Narrow Stairs, the platinum-selling indie vets have returned with a set that's less experimental and, thankfully, more consistent. Maybe it's just that the last few years have been kind to Ben Gibbard; he did, after all, consummate every sensitive indie dude's fantasy by becoming Mr. Zooey Deschanel. Or maybe The OC's fade into early-aughts nostalgia has allowed Gibbard to forget about his band's bizarre moment of mega fame without making penitent stabs at edginess. Whatever the cause, he's apparently decided that overwhelming bleakness doesn't look good on him, and has resumed making music of the bittersweet romantic type that first brought his band to unlikely stardom.
Most of Codes and Keys is comprised of pretty, spacious tunes like "Home Is a Fire" and "St. Peter's Cathedral," which would have fit easily on 2004's Plans. The principal difference is that this time out there are more synthesizers and fewer guitars. That's not much of a surprise, given that synth interludes are currently about as rare as Nicki Minaj guest spots, and that Gibbard's biggest mainstream successes came via his synth-pop side project, the Postal Service. Novelty or no, most indie groups turn to synthesizers when they want to sound sweeping and dramatic, the intersection of which has been Death Cab's m.o. since Transatlanticism. Gibbard and his crew had already mastered new wave's mopey, theatrical attitude; now they just sound a little more like a new-wave band too. Guitarist Christopher Walla is given a solid showcase on "Doors Unlocked and Open," a lean post-punk number that unfortunately runs about two minutes too long, but for the most part he's a background player here. Then again, who among us can honestly claim to have a favorite Christopher Walla guitar solo? His contributions to the band have always been textural and atmospheric, and so, sonically speaking, Codes and Keys is really no kind of reinvention.
Still, Death Cab's following has always been more about Gibbard's words than the band's sound, and the ratio of pining to philosophizing in Codes and Keys's lyrics should please longtime fans. "Unobstructed Views" is a ruminative number about living without the assurances of religion or universal truth, certainly on-the-nose, but no less so than, say, Lennon's "Imagine," perhaps its sole companion in the meager canon of explicitly atheistic pop ballads. Beyond that, Codes and Keys dwells on familiar themes: boys who don't know how to love, young people who feel a burning in their hearts, and so on. And by the end, you might be convinced that settling really isn't so bad. Here, Death Cab doesn't sound like they're trying too hard to please anyone, and they sound better confidently executing their strengths than they did self-consciously struggling against their sound on Narrow Stairs. Thanks in no small part to Death Cab, there's now a permanent niche for indie pop that's smart, sad, and refined, and Codes and Keys fills it nicely.