On “St. Peter’s Cathedral,” the penultimate track of Death Cab for Cutie’s Codes and Keys, Ben Gibbard gets metaphysical. He gazes up in reverence toward the towering basilica and decides that even if there’s no God and the church is just a grandiose monument to nothing, it’s still moving. There’s power in edifice, he seems to have decided, and he’s applied that notion to his band’s soulless seventh album.
In the past few years, Gibbard’s life has played out like an indie-rock pipe dream: the band he started as a bedroom project became enormously popular and lucrative, and then he married Zooey Deschanel. Love and success sometimes make musicians do crazy things, but this is not the case for Gibbard, who on Codes and Keys seems to be aspiring to Chris Martin levels of risk-aversion and comfort.
Much like a Coldplay record, Codes and Keys strains hard to signify big, sweeping emotion but comes off as impersonal and hollow. Where Gibbard once wrote precise, detailed lyrics, here he sticks to vague, Bono-sized truisms (“We are alive!” “This fire grows higher!” “There’s no eye in the sky, just our love!”). A coy and conversational singer, Gibbard doesn’t breathe the necessary bombast into this material, and the result feels like a hollowed-out pumpkin, a Joshua Tree with its guts scooped out.
To dismiss Death Cab entirely because of Gibbard’s delivery is understandable, but it’s also unfair to the band’s unsung hero, guitarist and producer Chris Walla. On earlier recordings, Walla had a knack for crafting expressive guitar tones that complemented Gibbard’s words: See the alcoholic wooziness of “Title Track” or the prickly bite of “Why You’d Want to Live Here.” Take or leave Gibbard’s maudlin lyrics on The Photo Album’s “A Movie Script Ending,” but that track’s emotional core is the distorted guitar riff rumbling beneath, upending the chorus like a tiny earthquake.
On Codes and Keys, Walla’s guitar is almost absent. Meanwhile, plenty of tracks sound like microwaved versions of earlier material: “Unobstructed Views” is a warmed over “Transatlanticism” that builds to nothing; the sprightly tone of character study “Monday Morning” undermines the poignancy of its narrative, much like Transatlanticism’s “Death of an Interior Decorator.” One bright spot is “Some Boys,” an indictment of inflated masculinity that is the album’s poppiest track “They lack inhibition, no walls/And they get what they want/But some boys don’t know how to love,” Gibbard sings, but it sounds vaguely smug and apologetic coming from his mouth.
Codes and Keys has garnered some Stone Roses comparisons, and the reworked “Waterfall” riff on the single “You Are a Tourist” is one of the album’s highlights. But The Stone Roses is a great record because it’s the sound of Ian Brown rising to the occasion (literally: “I Am the Resurrection”); metaphysical futility isn’t a problem for a frontman who’s his own Jesus. On the other hand, Gibbard’s defeated conclusion as he gazes at St. Peter’s seems appropriate on an album of so much architecture and so little heft: “There’s nothing past this.”