The 2003 masterpiece, “Transatlanticism”? A fond memory. The not-so-masterful 2005 release, “Plans”? Also in the back of the band’s mind. While the four-piece continues the trend of not repeating work on “Codes and Keys,” the unit also proves that behind-the-scenes thoughts can influence the stage.
Old-school fans will do a double-take at “Doors Unlocked and Open,” as the track starts off with an extended intro that could have been ripped from “The Photo Album.” The loose, airy song structures of that record play in not only here, but on “Home Is a Fire” and “Unobstructed Views.” The breezy, noncommittal melodies of “Plans” make appearances (on the title track and “Underneath the Sycamore”), while the lyrics and overall mood tend toward the emotional weight of “Transatlanticism.” You can even break down individual tunes into the parts that they learned from other discs. (“St. Peter’s Cathedral” is perfect for that.)
But instead of being a pastiche, this release shows growth. The delicate balance between crescendo and immediacy in “St. Peter’s Cathedral” could not have been pulled off before this. The deftness with which the band ropes the many parts of “Stay Young Go Dancing” into a cohesive 2:50 is the mark of a group hitting its stride.
It helps that Ben Gibbard is on top of his melody-writing game (“Some Boys,” “Doors Unlocked and Open”). Death Cab’s songwriting has arced from spacious indie-pop to tight pop songs and now back, but Gibbard’s melodic incisiveness hasn’t followed that pattern. He’s still just on.
In terms of coverable songs, there’s no “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” These are not quickly consumed nuggets. The set much more follows the mold of “The Photo Album” or “We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes”; this is a collection to be experienced, mulled over and integrated into your life. For that alone, old-school fans should be giddy.
Funny note: The title track is the worst song on the album, as it sounds too much like the aimless moments of “Plans.” Ew. But there’s not another number here that is skip-worthy; every other tune has musical layers that reward multiple listens.
Although it’s yet again a new chapter in the Death Cab sound, “Codes and Keys” will not receive the cold reception that 2008’s “Narrow Stairs” did, because the songs are way better. It’s easily the best complete Death Cab record since “Transatlanticism.” You can draw your own conclusions as to where it fits in your own personal DCFC hierarchy, but it’s worth talking about in the top tier, surely. —Stephen Carradini