Death Cab for Cutie - Narrow Stairs


When Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel, On the Road, was released in 1957, he was catapulted into the spotlight and declared the voice of a new generation. Being a wandering soul still struggling to find his way, this instant fame was virtually unbearable. For several years, Kerouac battled the fame with a debilitating liquid cure until he retreated to a cabin in Big Sur along California’s central coast. His 1961 rehabilitation attempt was thwarted by alcoholic withdrawals, but more importantly, his need for social interaction, which, consequentially, exasperated his alcoholism. So, when he returned to San Francisco, Kerouac continued to drown himself until he succumbed to liver cirrhosis in 1969.

Similarly, the life of Kurt Cobain was one full of misery when he was thrust into the mainstream after the release of Nevermind. Any similar case in music would be hard to come by, as those that attain instant fame usually strive for it. The case of Death Cab for Cutie is certainly not one of those cases. After years of independent label-released records, the band made the jump to a major in 2005. Their major label debut, Plans, did bring them into a much brighter spotlight, although the band experienced dimly-lit indie fame for several years. But, moving from minor to major fame is still a difficult task, one that can stir up the same conflicted emotions that Kerouac experienced, albeit in a much shorter timeline. Such was the case with band leader Ben Gibbard, who looked to finish Kerouac’s rehabilitation when he retreated to Kerouac’s cabin in 2007. Although he was not dealing with alcoholism, Gibbard attempted to escape the burdens of major label stardom and re-discover himself. He tells this story in “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” the opening track from their latest album Narrow Stairs. As always, Gibbard vividly paints the scenery with as much beauty as his voice, describing his trek beneath the picturesque Bixby Bridge.

“I descended a dusty, gravel ridge, beneath the Bixby Canyon Bridge / Until I eventually arrived at the place where your soul had died. / And barefoot in the shallow creek, I grabbed stones from underneath and waited for you to speak to me.”

Gibbard connects with Kerouac’s struggles, even beyond the transition from minor to major fame. He connects with Kerouac’s wandering soul, fearing the doom of the undiscovered self, which everyone at some point deals with. Whether we skip or traipse through life, we all reach a point of introspection, a crossroads, where we must choose a path, which is a heavy, heavy burden.

“And I want to know my fate if I keep up this way. / And it’s hard to want to stay awake, when everyone you meet, they all seem to be asleep. / And you wonder if you’re missing the dream. You can’t see a dream.”

The line is repeated multiple times as drudging guitars mimic the chaotic thoughts that this burden brings. Sadly, Gibbard realizes that his attempt to channel Kerouac is merely a fantasy and the weight of self-discovery is something that cannot be lifted by anyone but himself.

“And then it started getting dark, I trudged back to where the car was parked. / No closer to any kind of truth as I must assume was the case with you.”

Narrow Stairs is full of introspective narratives, ones that describe pivotal moments in the pursuit of self-discovery and the failure to find one’s own path. Musically, the band has shied away from the crystalline production of Plans and has returned to the live-recording sound of Transatlanticism and We Have the Facts…. “Cath..” tells the story of a girl who had many suitors, but chose the wrong one to wed. The song chugs along a Built to Spill-style bass line while chastising the girl who made the wrong decision. “I Will Possess Your Heart” is an epic song that is again driven by the bass line and it describes a man who attempts to capture the one that got away. “Your New Twin-Sized Bed,” is lighthearted in sound, but is critical in verse, telling the story about downsizing from a queen to a twin after a lover has moved out. “What’s the point in keeping the things that go unused,” Gibbard asks. It is a song about a turning point, picking up the pieces and moving on.

Critics will argue that these songs are drenched in love and despair, as they usually do with Death Cab for Cutie. Of course, Ben Gibbard often sings of lost love, but there is something deeper in his words than just heartache. The lyrics of Narrow Stairs reflect the turning points that Gibbard has faced, whether caused by lost love or something even bigger. Like Kerouac, Gibbard takes a hard look at himself, questioning the decisions he’s made and the decisions he must make. And so, lyrically, Narrow Stairs is the darkest of their albums and, as far as sound goes, it leaps back into the late ‘90s indie rock world, but scratches the edges to make it a bit rougher, resulting in their most honest-sounding record to date.

- Caleb Morairty
I'm Losing My Edge

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