Last time Death Cab for Cutie played in Bend, reviews of their 2008 album “Narrow Stairs” were pouring in, hailing it as edgy, dark and experimental.
Except the album wasn't really any of those things. One song had a long, ominous intro, and there were some morose lyrical passages, but for the most part, “Narrow Stairs” sounded like Death Cab.
Three years later, the Seattle-based pop-rock quartet returns to town (see “If you go”), again riding the wave of a new release; Death Cab's seventh full-length, “Codes and Keys,” comes out Tuesday.
And this time, the new album does sound different.
“If you told me ... that it just sounds like a Death Cab record,” drummer Jason McGerr said in a telephone interview last week, “I'd say, well, maybe you're listening on the wrong stereo.”
The band's basic components are still there: the chiming guitars of Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla, the reliable rhythm section of McGerr and bassist Nick Harmer, and a bounty of Gibbard's earworm melodies and lovesick/lovestruck lyrics. It's a formula that powered the quartet's rise from late-'90s indie-pop upstarts to playing amphitheaters and anchoring a “Twilight” movie soundtrack.
But “Codes and Keys” also swirls with electronic bloops and squiggles, crackles with ambient noise, and soars with dramatic string sections. Gibbard's tunes still shine through, but they're somewhat shrouded in the sound of a band finally comfortable in its grown-up skin. (Attention Radiohead fans: “Codes and Keys” may just be Death Cab's “Kid A.”)
Several factors influenced the sound of “Codes,” McGerr said. The band took longer to make it, and, for the first time, brought in an outsider (Alan Moulder) to mix it rather than having Walla do it.
And, the members of Death Cab went through significant personal change after “Narrow Stairs.” Gibbard and Harmer got married. McGerr is now a father.
“Our approach as players and Ben as a (songwriter), it has to be different,” McGerr said. “We're just at a different time in our lives. There wasn't much that was the same other than the individuals making the music.”
Then there was Walla's placement of “sonic roadblocks” in the studio to force the band to explore new ideas and ways of doing things.
“He wanted to avoid the pitfall of all of us picking up the instruments that we know so well,” McGerr said. “Just because Ben can pick up a guitar ... and play it doesn't mean that that's ... the most interesting version for an album. Sometimes when you throw something more challenging in front of somebody it pulls a different thing out of them.
“It's more inspiring, I think, to discover what you can do with a new instrument and how it shapes ... a song than it is to fall back on the same s--- all the time,” he said. “Stagnant water's where the bacteria is. I want to keep the flow going.”