Teenage angst has paid off well for Death Cab For Cutie singer-lyricist Ben Gibbard. Now he’s old and married to Zooey Deschanel, breaking the hearts of indie boys and girls everywhere, will listeners be bored?

Certainly a song title like the closing Stay Young, Go Dancing suggests a new-found bliss after building a following on the strength of their particular strain of smooth-sounding but self-loathing indie rock featuring on the soundtrack of US TV shows like The OC and Six Feet Under.

Early signs aren’t promising. Codes and Keys initially sounds likes a not-quite-so-impressive little brother of Radiohead’s Kid A (Kid B?), all skittering beats and obtuse musings with little discernible coherence. Electronica and strings dominate. The first few tracks — what traditionalists call side one — flow past leaving little impression. Lead single You Are A Tourist has a nice repetitive guitar hook but it’s only when track seven’s Monday Morning chimes into Death Cab’s more familiar guitar pop schtick, triggering a sequence of more straightforward fare, that long-term fans may feel comfortable. The opening couplet aptly describes the kind of girl who “may be young but she only likes old things, the modern music it ain’t to her taste”.

But repeated listening is the key to this album’s code. Those early songs, far from being one-dimensional, soon reveal their charms. Where opener Home Is A Fire once sounded dreary it now, conversely, positively soars. Title track Codes and Keys springs into life as an ode to the joy of being alive, borne along on “minor chords of major works” as its lyrics succinctly put it. Doors Unlocked and Opened evokes a sunshine-drenched vision of California gleaming. These are the tracks that will win out long after the sugary immediate hit of the likes of later track Underneath the Sycamore with its repetitive “we are the same, we are the same” chorus has palled.

If there’s one track that epitomises this album it’s probably St Peter’s Cathedral, which superficially marvels at said cathedral’s steeple in hackneyed religious terms — “there is stained glass/there’s a steeple that is reaching/up towards the heavens” — before crashing back down to earth with the lament that “when our hearts stop ticking/this is the end/there’s nothing past this”.

Gibbard seems to be tilting at happiness but falls short. Still, despite a measure of optimism there’s still some doom and sweet bitter gloom left for Death Cab to mine.

The details: Codes and Keys is available at music stores and on iTunes.

Peter Fray

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