Codes and Keys – Death Cab for Cutie

There might be a good album buried under Codes and Keys’ excessive production, but it’s hard to tell.

Death Cab for Cutie has always excelled thanks to personable songs with a sense of closeness, but the way Codes and Keys was put together undermines that completely. Producer/guitarist Chris Walla has struggled with over-production at times (see: half the songs on Tegan & Sara’s The Con), but this is the first time that problem has reared its ugly head on a Death Cab album.

The fatal flaw here is the handling of frontman Ben Gibbard’s vocals. His voice is processed within an inch of its life, stripping it of any warmth and humanity. It’s distant, over-layered, and synthetic sounding, making it difficult to connect to a word he’s singing. Without that feeling of earnestness, Death Cab feel like a completely different band.

The instrumentals seem similarly removed; only Jason McGurr’s typically excellent drumming feeling natural. The album does feature more keyboards than previous Death Cab albums (hence the album title), most notably on “Codes and Keys” and “Portable Television.” Yet despite exploring new sonic areas for the band, the album somehow lacks variety, with many songs seeming to blur into one collective mass. The distinctive hooks and lyrical sharpness just isn’t anywhere close to Death Cab’s (admittedly high) standard. When a song does stand out, it’s more likely for something off-putting (like the heavy panting on “Some Boys”) than something catchy (like the guitar riff on “Doors Unlocked and Open.”)

Did Death Cab for Cutie suddenly and abruptly jump the shark? No, that would be a bit rash (ed note: look at that wonderful straw man I just set up and knocked over.) The jarring nature of Codes and Keys mediocrity is more based on how terrific the band’s catalog to this point has been. Codes and Keys just happens to be Death Cab’s first album misfire.

Review Score: 6.6

*Expanded from a review in The Pacific Northwest Inlander*

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