Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard is the poet of a particular purgatory — the holding cell in your head that's filled with failed relationships and wrong roads taken. Death Cab's most memorable songs contain snapshots from its walls: Gibbard has sung about an incriminating kiss in a photobooth, discovering forgotten pictures of an ex in his glove compartment, and an especially bleak Kodak moment from a doomed marriage. On "Cath .. . ," from the band's new Narrow Stairs, he finds a girl "in a hand-me-down wedding dress," and the details feel like knife twists: "As the flashbulbs burst, she holds a smile/Like someone would hold a crying child."
That sort of heartbreak defines Narrow Stairs. But where Death Cab's past records made it easy to empathize with Gibbard's narrators, the group's second major-label release zeros in on characters who are often more creepy than cuddly. The result is a dark, strangely compelling record that trades the group's bright melancholy for something nearer to despair.
Death Cab's previous album, 2005's Plans, played to the impeccable craftsmanship of producer-guitarist Chris Walla, who has also made records with indie colleagues the Decemberists and Tegan and Sara. Plans was the sound of a band standing in open space, every note articulated. Its characters dreamed of flight, reveled in sunlight and saw endless possibilities. In one song, Gibbard imagined opening his arms to span the length of Manhattan, and musically, that's exactly what the band did.
Narrow Stairs does the opposite. Elaborate multitrack recording has been replaced with the sound of a band in a room: drum hits elbowing through overmodulating bass lines, feedback squalls obscuring piano and vocals, clotting the air like smoke. The sense of claustrophobia even extends to the breaks between tracks, which are nonexistent or fleeting; songs are cut off by noise bursts or begin with the lurch of a tape-machine capstan. This fits the material — the album is as dark as anything the band has done. The most glaring example is the single "I Will Possess Your Heart," which begins with nearly five wordless minutes of midtempo groove-building before becoming a love letter from a stalker. "You gotta spend some time with me," he sings with a trace of menace, noting his reflection in his beloved's window as he cruises by, "and I know that you'll find, love/I will possess your heart." Restraining order, please!
It's playing against type for a guy with one of rock's purest voices — a vibrato-less, bell-clear high tenor whose choirboy quality only throws the darkness here into relief. "No Sunlight" documents the death of an optimist over a perky New Wave backbeat. The feedback-spiked "Talking Bird" portrays a passive-aggressive lover whose devotion seems tinged with loathing. And "You Can Do Better Than Me" — where a man decides to stay in a troubled relationship "out of fear of dying alone" — comes across as a jaunty, Pet Sounds-style organ-rock stroll. Who knew timpani and sleigh bells could sound so unnerving?
But the most indelible moment is "Grapevine Fires,"a minor-key processional framed by churchy organ and electric piano. In it, a man brings his lover and her daughter to a cemetery, where the couple watch the girl dance against a backdrop of brush fires like those that ravaged Southern California last year. "I knew . . . everything would be all right," Gibbard sings, with an angelic chorus flaring up around the last word. But any certainty is wishful thinking. By the song's end, firemen "worked in double shifts." Whether they succeed or fail remains a mystery.
There are some heavy-handed moments. "Your New Twin Sized Bed" ("With a single pillow underneath your single head") and "The Ice Is Getting Thinner" are love eulogies whose metaphors feel a little too easy. But Gibbard's indie-rock blues still plumb emotional depths with remarkable literary detail. The songwriter has spoken about the influence that Jack Kerouac's end-of-the-road narrative Big Sur had on Narrow Stairs, especially on the opening track, "Bixby Canyon Bridge," a tribute to a Big Sur landmark. That song's narrator makes a pilgrimage to the sacred spot but finds himself "no closer to any sort of truth" than when he began. Still, by the end of this haunting record, Gibbard has gained a deep understanding of lovelessness and the way people live in its quiet wreckage.