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Death Cab For Cutie, ‘Narrow Stairs’ (Atlantic)

From afar, Death Cab for Cutie don’t seem to have evolved very much over seven albums: The Seattle band still explore love’s tender, bruiseable side with Ben Gibbard’s sometimes delicate, sometimes forceful vocals set to sometimes delicate, sometimes forceful indie rock. But a micro look reveals distinctions between the demure group that made 1999’s Something About Airplanes and the gents standing atop Narrow Stairs: After a slow and careful ascent, Death Cab now radiate hard-earned confidence with every note.

Though sonically similar to 2005’s gold-certified Plans, Narrow Stairs is considerably darker: Plans‘ sweet elegy “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” echoes here in album closer “The Ice Is Getting Thinner,” which sparingly documents a relationship’s slow end, rather than a hand-holding journey to eternity. Elsewhere, Gibbard affixes bright melodies to the death of optimism (“No Sunlight”), the futility of commitment (“Cath,” “You Can Do Better Than Me”), and pity and fear (uh, “Pity and Fear”).

While that may sound dangerously morose, Death Cab have become skilled with the light/dark juxtaposition. Even the poppiest songs — “I Will Possess Your Heart,” the hip-swinging “Long Division” — rush with emotional weight, and like most of the band’s oeuvre, Stairs is useful as a cleansing tonic or pretty poison. Balancing the two is tricky, but Death Cab have spent ten years perfecting the mixture.

More on Death Cab: — Check out director Aaron Stewart’s unique video clips promoting the new album. It’s a exclusive, and you can see them here. — Read the Death Cab feature in the May issue of SpinWatch the video for “I Will Possess Your Heart” — Watch behind-the-scenes footage from Death Cab’s 2005 Spin cover shoot