With their first couple albums, Death Cab for Cutie established a sound that was uniquely their own, one that not only launched the band into stardom but also became a foundation for the 21st century's new generation of indie/emo rock. But, seemingly intent not to be pigeonholed into a sound they helped solidify, each subsequent Death Cab release has expanded their sound in new directions while never losing their knack for dressing up dispirited lyrics in carefully catchy pop melodies. Both Transatlanticism and Plans even hinted at overarching themes—the former dealt with love being conquered by physical distance, the latter with growing old and emotionally distant. Neither quite coalesced into bona fide concept albums, though, feeling instead like collections of likeminded songs.

Narrow Stairs finally achieves that level of cohesion. Once again, the songs deal with hapless and infelicitous love, but this time a perceptible, almost narrative theme unfolds from song to song. "I Will Possess Your Heart," the eight-and-a-half-minute single that begins with a brooding, five-minute instrumental jam, explores the sadly deluded, stalkerish certainty that eventually the song's indifferent subject will love the singer in return. "Talking Bird" is like a lullaby, simple and familiar, with Ben Gibbard wistfully promising, "It's all here for you as long as you don't fly away." Key lines of several songs are startlingly dismal: "You can do better than me, but I can't do better than you," "You look so defeated lying there in your new twin-size bed"—even the driving '80s rock beat of "Long Division" can't hide the desperation in its chorus, "He had sworn not to be what he'd been before, to be a remainder."

Despite the heavy heart, there's a renewed sonic energy pumping through Narrow Stairs' lovesick and deflated veins. Musically upbeat as it is lyrically despairing, Narrow Stairs is acutely mimetic of an optimistic but fatally flawed relationship, and though the sentiment expressed is notably depressing, it is undeniably well crafted.

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