In light of the internet stream of Death Cab’s new record Codes and Keys, and in light of my unrestrained resolve to listen to it on repeat for an unhealthy amount of time, I feel it would be appropriate to analyze a trend that I’ve noticed not only in the evolution of DCfC, but also in that of so many other bands/artists I follow. This trend has become so astoundingly obvious to me lately, and I’ve been thinking about the “why’s” and “how’s” of it for some time now.
So many bands strive to outdo their preceding records by embracing a “new sound” on the next one, by altering their approach to arrangement and production, by promulgating their newest release as a more “experimental” record than the last. And what alleged change-in-sound does all of this usually amount to nowadays? A more electronica, ambient, and synthesizer-driven record that blasts those acoustic guitar riffs and that gritty ‘recorded live’ sound into the ground. This is what some music aficionados like to call over-production, and although I can see where they’re coming from, I don’t necessarily agree with how they categorize over-production as a bane to the music industry. Sure, bands are relying more on synthesizers than they did, say, eleven years ago, but there’s really nothing wrong with that. The world has seen immense advancements in technology over the years, so why shouldn’t musicians be allowed to evolve with the times and utilize all this new technology? The barrage of criticism surrounding the integration of an electronic sound into traditional alternative/folk rock music is really starting to irritate me.
Take Death Cab, for example. When the band switched from an independent label (Barsuk) to a major label (Atlantic Records) in 2005, they yielded the album Plans– the most synth and ‘over-produced’ (I say this tongue-in-cheek, of course) work in their discography thus far. Plans was a conspicuous departure from the grungy guitar feel of their earlier four records, so much so that pretentious fans scoffed at the ascent of DCfC into the mainstream realm just because of the band’s major label move and the advanced production of Plans. And I don’t blame them for feeling that way. Plans is different, it’s definitely got a more layered feel, and it was indubitably experimental for DCfC back then. But you know what? It works. It still ranks as one of my top two favorite Death Cab LP’s. No matter that two of their most popular and mainstream songs of all time are on that record; Plans is really freaking good.
Cut to 2008, and the band releases their sixth studio album, Narrow Stairs– in which the band does a complete volte-face and returns to the raw, stripped down rock that had been so characteristic of their earlier days. Chris Walla’s masterful production was nearly absent in the collection, with Ben Gibbard even stating in an interview that the band was trying to capture the essence of “four guys playing in a room together.” One of the songs, Talking Bird, was actually recorded entirely live and put on the album without any extra rearrangement. Unfortunately, Narrow Stairs– in all its candidness– was considered a flop in the eyes of both critics and hardcore fans.
So, I wasn’t surprised when the band turned out their most electronically-based album ever, Codes and Keys, this month. It’s almost like Chris Walla decided to slap all those critics in the face by going crazy with production, attention to detail, and various intricacies. Since when has the first track of a DCfC album resembled ethereal electro pop more than a rock anthem? And since when has a DCfC song ever featured Postal Service-esque bleeps and beats? Their newest set of songs is a testament to the increased reliance of bands on electronics and technology, and also a testament to the inevitable convergence of rock and electronica. Going electronic is the new ‘experimental’ in the music sphere, so naturally this is what it comes to when a band wants to adjust its sound. And again, I’m not saying that electronic automatically equals bad. Rather, I’m hugely impressed with Death Cab’s recent affinity for electro production. Codes and Keys absolutely slays Narrow Stairs in all respects, which goes to show that, when done right, a little ambience here and there won’t kill ya.
As another example, I’d like to point out the dichotomy between Sufjan Stevens’ records Seven Swans and The Age of Adz. Stevens, an exceptionally gifted orchestrator, veered from the soft acoustic charm of Seven Swans to the full-blown techno pop of The Age of Adz in the span of just a couple years. His enormous stylistic transformation was not a sign of an ‘indie sell-out’ (tongue-in-cheek again… I don’t believe in that term); instead, it just means that Stevens wanted to experiment, and rightfully so. I think that Adz is just as brilliant as his previous work and that he shouldn’t be berated for trying something out of left field. Pertaining to this subject, also see Brian Eno’s Another Green World (where the fudge did that record come from?) and even Paul Simon’s evolution as a solo artist all the way up until his newest release So Beautiful or So What? The moral of the story here is that technology prevails. It just can’t be avoided, especially in the art of creating music.
So if going electronic is the fruit of experimentalism in this day and age, what will be regarded as experimental in the next era of music? If psychedelia-infused sound gardens were experimental in the 60’s and electronic-based records are experimental now, what on earth comes next? It makes my head hurt to think about the abstractness that is the future of music. Nevertheless, I have trust in the creative tendrils of our world’s musicians and will forevermore refuse to invalidate a band’s music just because it has changed with the times.
*Title: “Art Snob Solutions” by of Montreal