Death Cab for Cutie bassist Nick Harmer recently said he hoped that Narrow Stairs, the band's eighth album, would be "a bit of a surprise for those out there that think they have us all figured out." He's joking, right? It's gotta be a goof — like singer Ben Gibbard's hilarious YouTube hit, Just Jazzin'. Because Narrow Stairs sounds exactly like Death Cab's last CD, 2005's Plans, right down to the over-the-top production, weepy lyrics, and plaintive guitar strums. The album even features the group's penchant for Morrissey-like lyrical twists ("You can do better than me, but I can't do better than you"), without ever nailing Moz's counterintuitive turns of phrase or dark jokes.
Worse, wordy songs like "Long Division" come off as if they were put together by an indie-rock generator: "And he had sworn not to be what he'd been before/To be the remainder." What? Still, like all Death Cab records, a couple of golden nuggets shine through: "I Will Possess Your Heart" (even though it takes seven minutes to get to the song's shiny center) and the thoughtful and simple "No Sunlight." But despite what the bass player says, there are no surprises here. In fact, Narrow Stairs comes very close to caricature.