Examining Death Cab for Cutie's Narrow Stairs 10 Years Later

Rewind, Local Music
05/18/2018
Jasmine Albertson

With Rewind, KEXP digs out beloved albums, giving them another look on the anniversary of its release. In this installment, KEXP writer Jasmine Albertson delves into Death Cab For Cutie's Narrow Stairs for its 10th anniversary.


“He says his favorite Death Cab album is Narrow Stairs, that’s weird right?” I ask my coworker after a date with a boy who I originally bonded with over our similar tastes in music. “Oh yeah, that’s super weird,” he agrees. We decide to put on the record during our shift at an upscale restaurant and find ourselves repeatedly marveling to each in between running food and bussing tables about how great this album is. At the end of the night we conclude that, perhaps, he could have a valid opinion.

Over the weekend, Narrow Stairs turned 10. Ahead of that, discussion over whether to write a 10-year anniversary piece on the album was initially met with a round of “mehs.” But thinking back to the discussion at the restaurant a few months ago, I was determined to examine why the album is so criminally underrated and whether there was anyone other than that one boy who deemed Narrow Stairs their favorite album. 

I decide the best place to start is by conducting a poll on Facebook. While not perhaps the most scientific, I did manage to get results from a number of ages and demographics. The results showed Transatlanticism was the overwhelming winner, with Plans right behind it. We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes was the favorite amongst pretty much every music industry person who commented and Something About Airplanes (which is having its 20th anniversary in August) tended to be a favorite amongst the older demographic (including my dad, who I had no idea even listened to Death Cab, let alone had a favorite album). Narrow Stairs had a measly two votes. These are their thoughts on why Death Cab’s sixth studio album is their favorite:

Tim Coleman, the boy previously mentioned as the catalyst for the investigation into the album, says: "Narrow Stairs is Death Cab For Cutie taking a risk, stepping up to the plate and hitting a home run. The tone of the record and instrumentation is flawless, with songs constantly bleeding into each other to create a beautiful moment in the band's discography. It's stood out since the first day I heard it in the back of my friend’s car and has been unbelievably underappreciated by almost everyone I've met since and I could never understand why. Sure, it's a little more aggressive and jarring than the rest of the band's catalog. But that's exactly what sets it apart and why Narrow Stairs has possessed my heart and will remain my favorite album by the band throughout the course of my life."

Obvious pun aside, Coleman makes a point about the album’s “aggressive” sound. Ahead of the record’s release, Chris Walla described the album as "total curve ball" and a "really polarizing record" that's "got some teeth." Unlike the albums before it, Walla chose a punchier, crisper sound and opted out of making obvious individual singles, instead bleeding each song into the next, making it an incredibly cohesive listening experience. It’s even possible to look at the whole album as a loop, with the first song functioning just as well as the last.

 

 

Seattle-based hip-hop writer and chronicler Gary Campbell had quite a bit to say about his feelings towards Narrow Stairs. ”For me, there’s a real thread of loss, stasis and transition throughout Narrow Stairs,” says Campbell. ”As if you know you’ve got a good thing going, but you’re about to do something stupid and self-destructive and fuck it all up anyway. You’d rather painfully barge ahead than stick with the comfort of the status quo. ‘Cath’ is a great example of this. You have this woman walking down the aisle to get married, and from the outside it’s supposed to be the happiest day of her life and she’s dying inside. And she’s too scared to say ‘no’ and go live her life and follow her dreams. Or like on ‘Your New Twin Sized Bed’ where the protagonist has gotten rid of their queen because they’ve resigned themselves to being single, giving up on the dream of something more. It’s this sense of resignation and giving up the fight, accepting your lot, there’s something so profoundly sad about that moment. It’s a record with no real answers, just a sense that all the decisions you’re making, the ones that are the logical conclusions, still feel wrong. Like on the first song [‘Bixby Canyon Bridge’] where Ben sings ‘You wonder if you’re missing a dream you just can’t see.’ That haunted feeling that maybe something better is out there for you, but you’re too frozen or too scared to make the necessary leap to find out. The ‘Talking Bird’ on infinite repeat, even though escape through the open window is right in front of you, ‘the longer you think the less you know what to do.’ So much paralysis, to the point of wallowing in all the reasons why you’re stuck where you are, why it’s the fault of this reason or this person or this bad timing or it would be better if I waited until tomorrow or next week. ‘I’m starting to feel we stay together out of fear of dying alone.’”

 

 

Indeed, the album was made out of a difficult time. Along with the typical internal melodrama of entering their 30s, the jump to commercial success with their previous album Plans put an inordinate amount of pressure on the indie band. In a recent interview with Stereogum about the 10 year anniversary, Gibbard explains his headspace at the time. “...when we finished that album cycle in December of 2006, my drinking had gotten much worse, the relationship I was in was completely disintegrating,” Gibbard acknowledged. “When you’re so singularly focused on working, touring, and living the life we were living at the time, there really wasn’t much time for anything else. I think by the time we got through that long period of promoting Plans, it was like, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to do that again?’ It was emotionally overwhelming. I was in a darker place than really any record that we’ve ever made. It was a dark, depressive period for me.”

The words “depressive” and “Death Cab for Cutie” tend to go hand in hand so well that they could be synonyms of each other, so why does Narrow Stairs feel so much darker? We Have the Facts was an entire concept album about a ruined relationship and Transatlanticism has so many tear-jerking moments that I can barely listen to it in public. A possibility may be that Narrow Stairs sees the band growing into men, no longer moping about girls but examining the too-real hardships around growing old via rather straightforward storytelling. The realism depicted on the album is harder for many listeners to confront than the age-old tale of unrequited love, which, while sad, is a cozy type of sad that most have become conditioned towards.

It's also worth noting that Narrow Stairs is DCFC's last album to have the quality of “sad” surrounding them. Perhaps that’s why it’s easier and worth re-listening to now, in the wake of Codes & Keys and Kintsugi, who have a mostly sunny disposition, to see Narrow Stairs in a new light. While I still wouldn’t place Narrow Stairs as my favorite album (Transatlanticism all the way), this investigation has given me an opportunity to take another look at the record, finding a new respect not just for the album but the band as a whole. 

Death Cab for Cutie are releasing a new, currently untitled, album this August and will be playing Paramount Theatre’s 90th Anniversary Celebration on Saturday, June 23.

 

 

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