Let me just say this first: I'm not a huge Death Cab fanboy. Their earlier albums (Transatlanticism in particular), really had a special place in my high school-aged music collection, but I never got fully into their later releases. I've got a ton of respect for both Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla as musicians, producers, and songwriters. However, how that has played out in their "post-mainstream" era of albums hasn't really gotten my attention. In fact, how I feel about Codes and Keys seems to be familiar to how I originally felt about their last relase, Narrow Stairs.
Narrow Stairs found the band indulging back in electric guitars and moody atmospherics, something the previous album, Plans, had shied away from. Death Cab seemed intent on proving to us that they hadn't sold out or gotten old. There are some great moments on the album, but it definitely took me awhile to get past the direction of the whole thing. Codes and Keys follows up Narrow Stairs in a way that attempts reasserts their "prog-pop" credibility with some experimental songwriting and piano-led instrumentation.
The album opens with a quiet and unnerving song entitled "Home is a Fire". The rhode keyboards and ride cymbal sprinkles give the verses of the song a great sonic instability that accentuates the lyrics as well. Other highlights of the album would definitely include "You Are a Tourist", the first single. In classic Death Cab form, this upbeat single includes an infectious melody and guitar hook that fits great along singles from other albums like "No Sunlight" from Narrow Stairs. Meanwhile, the clear standout of the album for me is "Unobstructed Views", the piano-led song with an extended instrumental intro. The atmospheric keyboards, soaring melody, and quiet patience are Death Cab for Cutie at its best and prove that they still are the best at turning what have been a completely standard pop song and changing its structure to create something much more beautiful.
However, I had a number of problems with the album, mostly to do with Gibbard. In most of these songs, he seems to have gotten overzealous and written a bit out of his vocal range. Almost all of the songs sit at the top peak of his range, leaving most of the songs with the same, slightly whiny feel. As Gibbard has gotten more confident in his vocal delivery over the years, the more and more contrived it feels to me. Furthermore, his lyrics, which have consistently become more focused on getting older, usually leave me a bit unconvinced coming from the 34-year old rock star. The track "Some Boys" exemplifies both of these qualities and might be the only song on the album that I just can't stand.
Overall though, Codes and Keys is a solid followup to Narrow Stairs and for fans it will offer enough standard Death Cab goodness and experimental switching up to satisfy big expectations. To me, in "Unobstructed Views" they've offered what might be their best song since "Marching Bands of Manhattan" from Plans and a totally enjoyable album through and through. Despite some of my gripes with Gibbard as a singer and lyricist, I found myself still quite often enjoying many of the songs and can definitely see myself returning to the album later on.