Indie rock used to be about crafting shambling odes to slackerdom — and not caring much if the guitars were in tune. But music on the fringes has grown increasingly gorgeous: intricately built bedroom symphonies from the likes of Fleet Foxes, the Shins, and Bon Iver.
Before them all, Death Cab for Cutie kick-started the prettiness revolution with 2003’s Transatlanticism, their breakout fourth album. A major-label deal, mainstream acclaim, and a Hollywood marriage (frontman Ben Gibbard wed Zooey Deschanel in 2009) followed, but the Pacific Northwest natives steadily maintained their melancholy charms.
Codes and Keys, the band’s seventh disc, eschews both the guitars and the rawness of 2008’s Narrow Stairs in favor of heavily textured studio elements. As limited as that may sound, there is a gratifying sense of restlessness and motion running beneath it all. The album’s centerpiece, the breathtaking ”St. Peter’s Cathedral,” builds gradually on an echoing Eno-esque guitar and great waves of organ buzz, allowing the lyric ”There’s nothing past this” to ascend from a sad-eyed statement on mortality to a glorious hands-in-the-air refrain. It’s a reminder to the rest of the pretty-rock community that loveliness is worthless if there’s no heart behind it, and Death Cab’s beats stronger than most. A