In 2005, Death Cab For Cutie made a move that, according to some, was the biggest mistake of their career; they switched from indie label Barsuk to Atlantic. Whether or not this is true, many indie bands have experienced backlash from fans from making such moves; just ask former indie darling Liz Phair and to a much lesser degree, Modest Mouse. Death Cab frontman, Ben Gibbard, however, could not be less concerned with such an issue. In the current issue of Spin magazine, he stated, "Some people were like, `I'll never buy their records again.' Good, don't buy our records! If the only reason you listened to our band is that we're on an indie label, that's totally ridiculous."
Certainly the last two major label releases from Death Cab were not bad records. They were a step down from the classic We Have the Facts And We're Voting Yes and Transatlanticism albums, but would another indie release have been able to hold its ground with those records anyway? Plus, a lot has changed for Gibbard since those recordings. He has stopped drinking, started running, and married musician/actress Zooey Deschanel. In short, Gibbard is, dare I say, happy. So has all of this affected the overall sound of Death Cab For Cutie on their seventh proper album (and third for Atlantic), Codes And Keys? Yes and no.
First of all, if you are looking for the saddening, heartbreaking lyrics you have come to expect, you may find yourself slightly disappointed. Gone are the, "I will hold a candle up to you to singe your skin. Brace yourself: I'm bent with bitterness," and the, "Yeah, you are beautiful but you don't mean a thing to me" lyrics. Now, the band encourages you not to let sadness overcome you. In "You Are A Tourist," Gibbard suggests, "When there's a burning in your heart and you think it'll burst apart, oh, there's nothing to fear. Save the tears. Save the tears." In fact, the album ends with, "Oh how I feel alive and through winters advancing we'll stay young go dancing." Whereas happy lyrics are certainly not a bad thing, if your heart is set on alcohol drenched suffering, the album may not make the delivery you're hoping for.
Sonically, if you thought this might be a return to the lo-fi Something About Airplanes days, once again, you might find yourself in want. The sound of the record is definitely Death Cab and most of the songs have the piano/guitar marriage you've come to expect. Vocally, Gibbard is unmistakable as ever. "Unobstructed Views" has slight "Transatlanticism" feel to it with its piano that continues to softly build as the song progresses through its 6+ minutes. "Doors Unlocked And Open" begins with an minute and half intro jam reminiscent of 2008's "I Will Possess Your Heart." Songs such as, "Codes And Keys," "Some Boys," and "Monday Morning" possess the traditional Death Cab mid tempo beats that warrant a foot tapping here and there.
Overall, this album is not dramatically different from Plans and Narrow Stairs; however, it is very much able to stand its own ground. In fact, Codes And Keys could have just as easily followed The Photo Album and Transatlanticism as well, if not better than Plans did. If you've come to embrace the band's more polished and produced sound and don't mind a set of happy lyrics, you will do just fine with this album. If you are still hoping for a return the late 90s and early 2000s, maybe you should just skip this one and give an earlier Death Cab LP a spin.