Scott Creney

Death Cab For Cutie – Codes And Keys (Atlantic)

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by Scott Creney

Death Cab For Cutie are back with their seventh album, Codes And Keys. According to an article in Spin, main DCFC-er Ben Gibbard spent most of their last album getting drunk all the time. With this album, he decided not to get drunk at all. Pretty dramatic, right? Well don’t worry DCFC fans, this album doesn’t sound any different than the ones before. Like McDonald’s, DCFC is nothing if not consistent.

Codes And Keys is still unfailingly melodic, tastefully compressed, and will probably sound better on whatever radio station plays DCFC than whatever’s currently playing on that same radio station. DCFC is a band that sings about fury and excitement without ever actually getting, you know, furious or excited.

No screams. No anger. No chance of ever offending anyone except for the easily bored. Always dignified. Always polite. Always respectable. This is rock’n’roll as an expensive brunch. A debutante ball, a graduation ceremony from a high school with outrageously high tuitions. Even its melancholy is ultimately upbeat—a frown turned upside-down.

DCFC is a band made for dramatic moments in airports. They sing of unarticulated fears, silence, the unbearable burden of being too much with your emotions. In short, they sing about adolescence and the time shortly thereafter. Buy this record for you sibling who is heading off to college in the fall.

Here’s the lead single, ‘You Are A Tourist’ (btw, that you in the title is what fiction writers call, a ‘thinly disguised I’ — one day you will be able to earn college credits by reading Collapse Board). I can’t help feeling that the vulnerability in the lyrics is meant to be perceived as a strength, if not downright fucking heroic.

But as a fellow Collapse Board writer once told me, “A work of art is finite in terms of what it is, but it’s infinite in terms of what you can get out of it”. Sure DCFC doesn’t do much for me in the context of ‘sitting in a room attempt to relate to its music’, but perhaps we can find a context where DCFC could come to life, could turn its safe reassuring gray into exploding neon color perversions.

I grab some DVDs off a shelf, and start putting them on with the sound off, using Codes And Keys as a soundtrack, in an attempt to recontextualize DCFC’s music. It turns out that their cleanliness, their relentless good-natured desire to be liked, is more powerful than I thought. Within minutes, they have reduced William S. Burroughs to a doddering old man sitting at a desk. They have made Can seem lost and poorly dressed. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris is now a slow-moving documentary about nature and space.

I try Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers, filled with scenes of people in horrific elderly masks pretending to fornicate with garbage cans and a young boy beating an animal to death. With DCFC as its soundtrack, the movie feels quaint, almost wholesome.

And maybe DCFC’s brand of middle-American niceness blankets the day-to-day life of this country to such an extent that it gives them the power to reduce everything it touches, to turn anarchic cries of rebellion into the equivalent of shouting ‘FIRE!’ in an empty theatre — in a small town where all the houses have been foreclosed and vacated.

Video may have failed me, but I wasn’t finished. I have this poster on my wall.

I insert DCFC into the poster, as a conversation between its subjects. From a certain perspective, it looks like the bear could be spanking the kitten. I imagine the bear singing DCFC to the kitten, dispensing gentle truths to the kitten while spanking its feline bottom. But then I try it from the other perspective. I imagine the kitten singing to the bear, the victim to its oppressor, and DCFC takes on a whole new light. It positively glows. The kitten’s words become the hard-earned wisdom of someone who knows what it means to suffer, the unheeded wisdom of Lear’s fool, or the primitive longings of Caliban, a futile attempt to educate one’s violent and unenlightend masters.

It turns out DCFC’s truths are more palatable more (dare I say it?) bearable, when sung from the perspective of a helpless kitten, than they are coming from a man in his mid 30s with poor eyesight. The kitten did what Ben Gibbard could not. It allowed me to listen to Death Cab For Cutie without becoming slightly nauseated.

The kitten wins in the end, the way kittens usually will.

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