Careful you don't trip lads...ouch...too late...
It's been a longish three years since the release of Death Cab for Cutie's mainstream breakthrough album 'Plans', and the intervening period has seen the band grow that fan base even further through tours and a myriad of festival appearances. Therefore 'Narrow Stairs' feels very much like it's the ubiquitous "difficult second album" rather than "in the groove and coasting album number six" and, unfortunately, the band hasn't quite broken the curse.
The main problem is that 'Narrow Stairs' follows its predecessor's template far too closely. Musically there's nothing dramatically different going on. Shimmering guitars, tangled percussion, vociferous bass and treacle-thick keyboards are all present and correct, but there's no evidence whatsoever of a willingness, nay, eagerness to progress, to (and please forgive me for this) push the envelope. Most of this album sounds very much like the first Placebo album would have done had it been produced by Stock, Aitken and Waterman. It's as if the band has decided it's time to stop messing about trying to do cool and innovatory stuff in the studio and just hunker down to do what's expected of them. And apparently they've decided that what's expected is to lay down some mostly safe indie-rock tracks with arrangements that have got just enough edge to prevent fans accusing them of sounding like Will Young's backing band, catch the last bus home and instead chance that Benjamin Gibbard's lyrics and vocals will see them right. It might just have worked. But it doesn't.
On 'Narrow Stairs', Gibbard's lyrics again cogitate almost exclusively on affairs of the heart; doomed romances, one night stands, unrequited love, communication breakdowns and such, and indeed his vocals are also as sickly sweet as ever (Brian Molko by way of Ben Folds). It's just that it doesn't sound like there's any fire in the Gibbard belly this time around; we've heard pretty much all this stuff before (although on this record it's far more dystopian an outlook) and, as with Morrissey and Robert Smith, it's dangerously tempting to seek him out, grab his collar and tell him pretty brutally to either grow up, cheer up or just shut the fuck up.
Of the album's few highlights, the riffling snares, thick organ and shambling bass on 'Grapevine Fires' is dizzyingly triumphant; the lyrics on the uncharacteristically (and unashamedly) poppy 'Your New Twin Sized Bed' are gloriously bijou yet assiduously steeped in melancholy, and the "remain-remain-remainder" vocal riff on 'Long Division' is a great addition too (pun intended).
However, 'I Will Possess Your Heart' features a pointlessly long introduction and fairly obvious lyrical sentiments; 'Pity And Fear', which has a great lyric on one night stand emotional angst slides into apocalyptic musical bombast, and although the timpani on 'You Can Do Better Than Me' adds a piquancy so sorely lacking across the record, the rather predictable lyric spoils proceedings rather: "You can do better than me / But I can't do better than you" isn't sweet and simple, it's simply lazy. Gibbard is capable of far better than this.
'Narrow Stairs' is a well crafted, well performed and slickly produced album, and frankly that is to its detriment. 'Narrow Stairs' is the sound of a band treading water. It's not going to convert the unbelievers and, in truth might well alienate devotees used to the more inventive lyrical meanderings of Gibbard, and the more imaginative musical expeditions of the band entire.
In the final analysis, what this album lacks most is a heart; an effective and affecting centre. The heart of 'Plans' is the beautiful 'I Will Follow You into the Dark'. The heart of 'Narrow Stairs' is presumably the frankly ludicrous 'Talking Bird', a song I find it impossible to conjure adjectives destructive enough to appraise. Therefore I'll leave you with an excerpt and let you make your own mind up...
"Oh, my talking bird / Though your feathers are tattered and furled / I'll love you all your days / Till the breath leaves your delicate frame".