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Death Cab For Cutie: The Pursuit Of Happiness

Narrow Stairs isn't Death Cab for Cutie's easiest album to get to know. Often mysterious and occasionally meandering, it politely requests time to sink in, especially compared to the more overtly crowd-pleasing likes of Transatlanticism and We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes.

Instead, Narrow Stairs requires and rewards a bit more dissection: "Cath...," in particular, contains enough fodder for a feature-length think piece on the state of frontman Ben Gibbard's mind. A look at a young star whose fleeting fame can't mask her gnawing sadness, the song practically begs to be picked apart, its narrator psychoanalyzed for good measure. "Everybody will ask what became of you," Gibbard sings in the chorus. "'Cause your heart was dying fast, and you didn't know what to do."

Whether selling millions or toiling in obscurity, Gibbard has always been more winsome than tortured, and Death Cab for Cutie takes care to leaven the bleakness with a surprisingly muscular arrangement. As it gains momentum, "Cath..." unfolds as a nuanced and affecting cautionary tale about the pursuit of happiness, the perils of success, the doors we close, and the choices we make as our youth fades.

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This story originally ran on Apr. 29, 2008.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
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