In Jack Kerouac’s 1962 novel Big Sur, the Beat dynamo paints a vivid picture of a desolate beach canyon where sunburnt leaves, carried by the howling autumn wind, tumble towards the pounding Californian surf.
The haunting scene is witnessed by a desperate man unable to move beyond a fixation on his own demise. It was Kerouac’s ominous tale that provided Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard with the inspiration for the Seattle-based quartet’s latest record, Narrow Stairs.
Filled with an undeniable despair that’s much darker than the melancholy exhibited in the band’s previous work, Narrow Stairs serves as a testament to the maturity and confidence that Death Cab for Cutie has gained from more than a decade of making music.
“Going into it [recording Narrow Stairs], we were totally relaxed,” says drummer Jason McGerr, on the line from a Manchester, England, tour stop. “There was no pressure. The last record had done very well, so there was nothing to prove, necessarily. It was just, ”˜Let’s do what we do and enjoy ourselves.’ ”
With 2005’s Plans securing the foursome a place among indie-band royalty beside the likes of Modest Mouse and the Decemberists, McGerr and his bandmates—Gibbard, bassist Nicholas Harmer, and lead guitarist Chris Walla—saw the opportunity to experiment with their trusted sound. The 11 tracks on Narrow Stairs show a side of the band that’s far more brooding and musically adventurous than anything else in Death Cab for Cutie’s expansive 10-year catalogue.
From the reverberated guitar tones on the tribal “Pity and Fear” to the atmospheric dissonance that closes “Bixby Canyon Bridge”, the outfit’s sixth studio album recalls the gloomy delirium of Big Sur’s protagonist, Jack Duluoz. Rife with moments of misery and isolation (just listen to Gibbard bleakly sing, “My old clothes don’t fit like they once did/So they hang like ghosts of the people I’ve been,” on “You Can Do Better Than Me”), Narrow Stairs would no doubt have pleased Kerouac.
While the moodier songs may seem like a departure from the delicate ballads that made Death Cab for Cutie so well suited to fans of the teen soap opera The O.C., McGerr sees the introduction of darker themes and musical experimentation as a natural progression in the band’s sound.
“There is a large part of this band’s history that is preserved and presented with Narrow Stairs,” he says. “If you listen to the whole catalogue you will see where there’s a wink to the future, there’s also a nod to the past.”
And devoted fans seem to have drawn the same conclusion. They’ve embraced Death Cab for Cutie’s latest effort wholeheartedly, buying 144,000 copies in the album’s first week of release, pushing Narrow Stairs to the top of the charts. The impressive standing is doubly rewarding for the members of Death Cab for Cutie, considering they wrote, recorded, and produced the album on their own.
“For this album, everything was done in-house, so we ended up not feeling like the world is that much bigger than the day we first started,” McGerr explains, philosophically. “We’re just four guys getting together and talking about how much we enjoy making music, and then we try to see that vision out.”
It’s been reassuring that Death Cab’s current label, Atlantic, has allowed the band to retain control over its music and career. The inking of a deal was certainly a concern for fans when Death Cab for Cutie decided to leave its long-time label Barsuk to sign with the major back in 2004. McGerr insists that not a lot has changed since then.
“If I comb over the entire operation, the only thing that really sticks out is the amount of work we do overseas,” he says. “Other than that, we still record records by ourselves. We still make decisions about tours and band business and image—everything is completely up to us. It always has been.
"I think coming into a major-label agreement with Atlantic five records into our career, with a healthy touring history, it didn’t seem like they wanted to change what we were doing. That might have been different if we had signed to Atlantic on record number two, so I think the timing was perfect for the growth of the band.”
Death Cab for Cutie plays Pemberton Festival on Sunday (July 27).