On the surprisingly tepid Narrow Stairs, the sensitive indie boys of Death Cab for Cutie seem to have tired somewhat of being themselves. Perhaps the thrill has gone out of providing lushly emotional soundtracks for the nation’s brokenhearted? Pity, they were excellent at it. Lead singer Ben Gibbard and guitarist/producer Chris Walla used to seem more than typically attuned to the peculiar sensations associated with young love. Here, the band only glancingly employs its felicitous ability to wrest emotional significance from the most treacly of melodies and sentiment. As it turns out, they’re quite a bit less adept at Can-referencing krautrock, like the meandering lead single/stalker anthem “I Will Possess Your Heart,” or Eastern-inflected statements like “Pity and Fear.” And they should certainly refrain from ripping off the Beach Boys, as on the drably bouncy “You Can Do Better Than Me.”
This is the band’s most schizophrenic record, and as such a few efforts do stick. The stirring “Bixby Canyon Bridge” is a tease of an opener that glides in on atmospheric synths and Gibbard’s always-plaintive voice before quickly and repeatedly cresting atop a surprisingly aggressive guitar riff. The band sounds surprisingly at home with bottom-heavy punk here and on the similarly rocking “Long Division,” particularly because their arrangements allow Gibbard room to emote. Elsewhere, “Your New Twin Sized Bed” finds the singer stretching out across the hook with the kind of sweet sentimentality the band is best at.
The rest of the record, unfortunately, seems unfocused. Death Cab mostly abandons the full-sounding multi-tracked production they preferred during their rise to primetime soap stardom, and the effect is unflattering. Many of the songs here could use a good scrub behind the hooks. “Cath,” for example, is an entirely serviceable midtempo rocker of the sort the band is probably capable of tossing off in its sleep. It finds Gibbard pitched at the top of his register, addressing a woman who’s settling for a life a few octaves below her own. This is Gibbard’s strongest subject matter; the band’s hit “The Sound of Settling” is a good example of his facility with the theme. But where that song was bursting at the seams with fizzy, shiny pop baubles, “Cath” is spare to the point of conservatism. Like this album, it longs to be taken seriously, and as a result fails to take flight.