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When asked to describe DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE’s sixth studio album, Narrow Stairs (2008), guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Chris Walla characterizes it as “having teeth,” and we can’t think of a more apt summarization of the disc. While many bands in Death Cab for Cutie’s situation would try to recreate the success of hit songs like “Soul Meets Body” or “I Will Follow You Into The Dark,” instead the band have crafted the most ambitious and varied album of their career by simply doing what they’ve been doing since they formed in Bellingham, Washington a decade ago – made a brilliant record that refuses to pander, while stretching the artistic boundaries of what a Death Cab for Cutie record should sound like.
After spending much of 2006 in the midst of a turbulent tour cycle surrounding their RIAA platinum, Grammy-nominated album Plans, the band took a well-deserved break during the first part of 2007. Frontman Ben Gibbard embarked on his first-ever solo tour; Walla released a solo album and produced records for acts like Tegan and Sara; drummer Jason McGerr constructed his own recording studio, Two Sticks; and bassist Nick Harmer, as always seems to be the case, worked on various projects. If Plans was a collection of firsts – Death Cab’s first album for a major label; the first disc to feature songwriting contributions from someone other than Gibbard; the first Death Cab disc recorded with the same drummer as the one before – Narrow Stairs feels more like home.
The decision to record the new album at McGerr’s Two Sticks, Walla’s studio Alberta Court, and long-time friend John Vanderslice’s studio Tiny Telephone allowed the band to abandon self-conscious tendencies in order to craft the most creative album of their career. “I wanted more than anything to create a professional studio that was also somewhere that was comfortable to hang out in,” says McGerr about the conception and construction of Two Sticks (which was designed largely with the Narrow Stairs sessions in mind). “To do that, I had to take into account what we all love and hate about the studios we’ve been to, and make it comfortable enough to spend five or six weeks there at a time without feeling homesick.” That environment, combined with the heightened amount of collaboration on the new songs, makes Narrow Stairs the climactic culmination of Death Cab’s first ten years.
“If you can’t stand in place, you can’t tell who’s walking away,” Gibbard croons on Narrow Stairs’ penultimate track, “Pity And Fear” – and while that’s true, Death Cab for Cutie have taken a giant step forward both creatively and conceptually with this album. While it hasn’t been an easy road to get to this point, Death Cab for Cutie insist that more than anything, this next chapter in the band’s evolution is due to the fact that they’re relating both as individuals and bandmates. “To think that tension is adding to the music isn’t true for us,” Gibbard explains, citing notoriously at-odds acts like Fleetwood Mac and Metallica. “It’s easier for us to make good music when we’re all relating to each other and getting along.”