I don’t read as many album reviews as I did in my late teens and early 20s, so I was pleased to see from this insightful Rolling Stone review that the art form isn’t dead.
The key sentence, repeated on the Wikipedia entry for the album, is this: “The result is a dark, strangely compelling record that trades the group’s bright melancholy for something nearer to despair.”
I’m not an expert on DCFC by any means, having just gotten past the name (had I known it came from Neil Innes, I would’ve made the leap sooner) and heard some wonderful songs on Pandora. But I can tell that they walk a very fine line in their exploration of melancholy places — sometimes brilliant, sometimes whiny. Aimee Mann walks that line as well, though when she falls short, her efforts just sound dreary. DCFC runs the risk of lapsing into a depressed 16-year-old’s journal entry.
Let’s make this clear first: Narrow Stairs is a very good album. Most of the album’s best offerings are uplifting in some way despite the subject matter. Cath … takes care not to judge too harshly when someone gives up a bit of passion to marry the “well-intentioned man.” Grapevine Fires captures the anxiety and impending sense of loss while watching wildfires sweep over neighborhoods while sounding a few notes of resilience. My favorite song that hasn’t had wide release is Your New Twin-Sized Bed, which is written in second person and gently prods the subject not to give up so easily.
Judging from the comments rounded up in the Wikipedia entry, the band was worried about releasing I Will Possess Your Heart, written from a stalker’s point of view. They needn’t have worried. It’s really no different in theme from Sarah McLachlan’s Possession, and it’s just as well-written.
For me, any controversy begins with No Sunlight. The bouncy melody and enthusiastic first verse disguises the fact that the rest of the lyrics are completely nihilistic. It’s a clever artistic technique to have lyrics and music so different in tone, but the lyrics are just too lazy for the song to work. Perhaps if it were a little more ironic, it would work as some sort of “Oh, they’ll be hanging me in the morning” death song you’d expect from the Irish, but it’s all too simple. When the protagonist was young, the sun was shining and he loved it. Then as he got older, clouds formed, and he didn’t like it. That’s disappointing.
The album closer, The Ice Is Getting Thinner, is just as disappointing. It’s entirely too hopeless and entirely too simple.
Also disappointing is the video for Grapevine Fires, which removes one interesting theme in the lyrics — a little girl dancing in a cemetery — and substitutes a storyline in which a main character’s girlfriend is devoured by the fire, either metaphorically or literally. Once again, the complexities are removed, and we’re left with something a little too heavy-handed, like those latter-day ER episodes in which they just tried to outdo themselves in tragedy.
The point here isn’t to pick on Death Cab for Cutie, not when they’re clearly a cut above their peers. This is constructive criticism. Musically, every song on this album is interesting. Most of the songs also have something to offer lyrically. They’re capable of greatness, and they achieve it on several songs here and a soundtrack offering called Meet Me On the Equinox, a breathless take on the old “carpe diem” sentiment. They just need to remember to pull back from the edge and take another look at the scenes they’re painting when they get too close to hopelessness.
Going back to my music-magazine-devouring days, I remember Husker Du sounding a bit of regret over their mope-rock album Candy Apple Grey, saying they had a few fans with dark circles under the eyes coming up and saying, “I really loved that album.” Like Candy Apple Grey, Narrow Stairs captures a band at the peak of its musical power. Husker Du added some musical savvy to a punk-rock foundation; Death Cab for Cutie has extraordinary melodic talent.
Husker Du’s Bob Mould broke into a pretty good solo career with a song called See a Little Light. Perhaps a little light would help the gifted Death Cab for Cutie reach the next level and produce a masterpiece with their next release.