Somewhere along the line, Death Cab for Cutie got huge. The unassuming rockers from Bellingham, Washington, went platinum with 2005's Plans (a milestone even Arcade Fire haven't matched), topped the charts with 2008's Narrow Stairs, and even contributed the lead single (over Thom Yorke, the Killers and Muse) to the Twilight Saga: New Moon soundtrack. Oh, and Ben Gibbard, the group's lovelorn boy-next-door frontman, married actress/She & Him singer Zooey Deschanel a couple years ago.
It turns out hugeness becomes them. On Codes and Keys, the instinctively self-effacing band appears, for the first time, at ease with their steady, organic success; the result is the best Death Cab record since 2003's Transatlanticism. Where the bleak Narrow Stairs telegraphed its gestures toward adventurousness too obviously, here atmospheric electronics and foreboding bass lines lock together seamlessly in songs that find indie rock's quintessential Smart, Sensitive Guy finally coming to terms with everything he's secretly been afraid of: domesticity, comfort, Los Angeles.
A lot of that is thanks to the band's guitarist and longtime producer, Chris Walla, who — with mixing help from alt-rock luminary Alan Moulder — has created a space for Gibbard's melodies that's as vast and conflicted as Southern California. When Gibbard played a stalker over motorik propulsion on Narrow Stairs' eight-minute first single, "I Will Possess Your Heart," he was stepping out of his comfort zone, and it didn't entirely work. When this still-recent honeymooner rejects womanizing on potential future single "Some Boys," tweaking the Rolling Stones' "Some Girls" while subtly incorporating elements of 1970s art-rock, he's playing to his strengths. It's a refreshing change.
Gibbard sounds most at home on joyful finale "Stay Young, Go Dancing," where he giddily embraces waltzing the years away with his wife in a city he once dubbed "the belly of the beast." The lyrics have a casualness that rings true — a touching contrast from the cloying self-deprecation of Narrow Stairs love song "You Can Do Better Than Me." There's even a quick nod to the Supremes in the line "When she sings, I hear a symphony."
Gibbard's lyrics will always make or break the deal for many listeners, but what distinguishes Codes and Keys is its Walla-led emphasis on electronics. An extended keyboard meditation opens album centerpiece "Unobstructed Views"; on the penultimate "St. Peter's Cathedral," Gibbard murmurs over a minimal whir, with bum-bum backing vocals replacing a guitar line. Both songs do a good job of setting the concept of home life within an existential context: No God, no afterlife, only love. Love and song. An album obsessed with the concept of home, Codes and Keys sees Death Cab sounding at home within itself. On the title track, Gibbard repeats "We are one/ We are alive," through rickety keyboard and aching strings. It's unclear whether he's addressing his wife, the band, the listener, or all of the above. Till-death-do-us-part rock: It could be huge.