Let’s put the jokes aside for a second. Let’s forget about that one Fox TV show where that one character said Death Cab for Cutie was his favorite band, which did for indie rock what Run-D.M.C. did for Adidas. Let’s forget that Death Cab is so fey they make Modest Mouse seem like Mudvayne, that when you think about it, frontman Ben Gibbard’s voice sounds kind of like wet toast. Regardless, dude is the Magic Johnson of Nervous Whiteboy Seduction. (Zach Braff is his James Worthy, McLovin his A.C. Green.) How can one man be so good at churning out colorful rhyming stanzas that seem expressly designed for young lasses to carve into their Trapper Keepers? And how old is Gibbard these days, anyway? And where do all these girls keep coming from? Wait, wait—maybe he’s the Wilt Chamberlain of Nervous Whiteboy Seduction, which would make Zach Braff . . .
Never mind. Forget all that, because Death Cab is a good band. Here’s a list of great songs this good band has written (in no particular order): “Photobooth,” “405,” “A Movie Script Ending,” “Lightness,” “Transatlanticism,” “Lack of Color,” “Your Heart Is an Empty Room,” “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” That’s a compressed list. As a songwriting and producing unit, respectively, Gibbard and guitarist Chris Walla (with help from bassist Nick Harmer) have given us the gift of unabashed, high-grade romantic pap for 10-plus years now. Not an overstatement: Theirs is the most tender body of work you’re likely to encounter in the history of recorded music, full of melancholy pianos, light-in-the-loafers melodies, and percussion so earnest it’s like a nervous wallflower willing his way across a junior-high dance floor with a question in his throat. Feeeeyyyyy! Which certainly turns a great many people off, and if you’re one of those people, you probably already stopped reading anyway. So this is for the converted: Narrow Stairs ain’t that great.
There’s a little hum out there saying this is Death Cab’s experimental album. It’s not. It’s their mediocre album. The lolling bassline and chillaxed guitar of “Your New Twin Sized Bed” sound like Jack Johnson. “No Sunlight” shoots for the uppity pulse of “Sound of Settling” (complete with snappy chorus), but the melody doesn’t stick. More agreeably, “You Can Do Better Than Me” has some Phil Spector–y flourishes of sleigh bells and timpani, while “I Will Possess Your Heart” is a half-heartedly trippy eight-and-a-half-minute single that evokes Joy Division if you squint real hard. But these only sound like risks next to the otherwise solid body of work these guys have built up by playing it safe. The best tunes here are the simplest: “Talking Bird” is sparse and shimmering; “Grapevine Fires” tickles with one of those nervous beats and a harmonized chorus promising that “Everything will be all right.” At least for a song or two, all those young lasses will be relieved.