Props to Zooey Deschanel for finally cheering Ben Gibbard up. On Narrow Stairs, the Death Cab frontman sang songs like “You Could Do Better Than Me” and “Pity and Fear,” filling the album with the sort of articulate, hyper-literate gloominess you might expect from a depressed poetry major. Codes and Keys, released three years after Narrow Stairs and two years after his marriage to Deschanel, paints a brighter picture. Gone are the breakup ballads, the odes to lost love, the down-in-the-dumps sentiment that filled most of Death Cab’s earlier work. Instead, the album offers up a handful of odes to the sunny side of life. Gibbard alludes to his wife often, referencing her retro charm on “Morning Morning” (“She may be young but she only likes old things/And modern music, it ain’t to her tastes”) and laying out a plan for the rest of their married life with “Doors Unlocked and Open” (“We’ll live in slow motion and be free/with doors unlocked and open”). Beneath his vocals, more changes are taking place: a move away from guitar-based song arrangements, a stronger emphasis on keyboards, a willingness to explore the electro-acoustic link between Death Cab and the Postal Service, Gibbard’s most famous side-project. Codes and Keys still sounds like a Death Cab album, but the guys explore the benefits of the recording studio more than ever before, boosting Jason McGerr’s drums with bits of programmed percussion and scaling back their guitar riffs to sparse, articulate clumps of notes that ring out into the ether. There’s a new-found emphasis on open space, on electronics, on Kid A-inspired webs of feedback and distortion that are draped behind the songs like ambient backdrops. It’s not all machines and Eno-esque production -- a simple barroom piano opens up the title track, and “Stay Young, Go Dancing” (whose title would’ve seemed far out of place on any other Death Cab record) begins with an acoustic guitar -- but Codes and Keys certainly emphasizes the “studio” in “studio album,” focusing as much on the music’s presentation as its content. Luckily, there’s enough genuine melody at the core of these songs to warrant their arrangements.
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AllMusic Review by Andrew Leahey