Like a number of 20th century writers and artists who sought inspiration while visiting the isolated central California locale of Big Sur, Death Cab For Cutie front man Ben Gibbard had hoped to seek similar enlightenment whilst writing songs for Narrow Stairs, the band’s seventh studio album, which debuted at No.1 on the Billboard 200 last month.
Instead, the 32-year-old came away rather disillusioned. “I guess I was expecting some kind of profundity to hit me. I wanted to project some kind of transcendence of being in this place,” Gibbard says, noting he wanted to follow in the proverbial footsteps of literary idol Jack Kerouac, who holed himself up in a cabin at Big Sur to pen his 1960s novel of the same name. “For me, I felt foolish expecting some kind of answer by making a pilgrimage to this place that belonged to one of my heroes.
“That’s how I would best describe what the song Bixby Canyon Bridge is about; how foolish we always feel when we project transcendence or salvation onto any physical thing.”
Narrow Stairs also explores the regrets of a bride who marries the wrong beau (Cath…), the woes of a chum’s relationship breakup (Your New Twin-Sized Bed) and goes a step creepier into relaying the controlling mind of a stalker (I Will Possess Your Heart). That’s not to say the Washington State-based quartet operates under a cloud of total doom and gloom. Quite the contrary: Gibbard points out that he, guitarist/producer Chris Walla, bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr were happy enough to try and push new boundaries. Rather than record songs in a piecemeal, layered fashion a la 2005’s Grammy-nominated Plans, Death Cab worked more like a live band jamming, keeping in little “happy accidents” such as a disconnected guitar chord or a slashing tape cut.
But the most notable form of enlightenment comes from first single I Will Possess Your Heart, eight minutes and 31 seconds long, with vocals appearing nearly five min- utes in.
“It might be a stretch to say that an eight-and-a-half minute single with no vocals at the front end should somehow become a No. 1 song in any country ... But if there’s one thing I hope we can achieve, it’s to show people that if you have a song that’s catchy enough, the old rules of what a single should be shouldn’t have to apply.”