Death Cab finally drops loneliness on new album

3/5 Pitchforks

Released on May 31

After building a career on desperate, guitar-driven, break-up poetry, Ben Gibbard is married.

And now long-time fans of Death Cab For Cutie are forced to wonder if his new release loses that aura, or if, God forbid … it’s happy.

“Codes and Keys” isn’t all that happy, but Gibbard sounds far away compared to his band’s earlier days, both musically and metaphorically.

His longing croon gets white-washed, laden with reverb, and the guitar parts are almost completely absent, changed in for deep synthesizers and tinkling piano.

It’s the most experimental record the band’s ever created, but it might also be the least personal. What used to be meditations on romance and all its pitfalls have been replaced with different subjects — a town (“You Are a Tourist”) or a place (“St. Peter’s Cathedral”).

Very likely, this will turn into a divisive album for Death Cab’s fans: the “their old stuff was better” crowd versus the “this is good too” folks.

But years ago, neither faction would have predicted a lyrical turn like this.

“And it’s strange, but they’re all basically the same, so I don’t ask names anymore,” Gibbard sung on Expo ’86 from 2003’s “Transatlantacism.

Now, although it’s held at bay until the end, Gibbard can’t help but let some of his joy sink in. On the final track, “Stay Young, Go Dancing,” he finally, after years, sounds all right.

“‘Cause when she sings, I hear a symphony,” he sings over a simple acoustic guitar and chord progression, clearly about his new wife and fellow singer/actress Zooey Deschanel.

But who knew finally finding love could be so jarring?

Whether it’s fair or not, the band’s progression up until now seemed logical.

They started with loneliness and worked their way up to downright despair with 2008’s excellent “Narrow Stairs,” which featured tracks that would’ve seemed like parodies of themselves (“No Sunlight”, “You Can Do Better Than Me”) if they weren’t so heartfelt.

So now, despite the experimentation, it feels like the band hasn’t take one, but two steps back, into an album that’s pretty good but not what they are known for, and not what catapulted them into indie stardom (an oxymoron?).

So “Codes and Keys” will always be judged by what the band did before, and it’s difficult to clearly see how the album stands on its own.

But overall, it’s safe to say Death Cab has dropped what it does best, but still winds up doing pretty well without it.

Death Cab for Cutie will be coming to Comerica Theatre on Aug. 15.

Reach the reporter at clecher@asu.edu