A Single-Story Interpretation of Death Cab for Cutie’s Narrow Stairs
Bixby Canyon Bridge BBC
I Will Possess your Heart IWPYH
No Sunlight NS
Talking Bird TB
You Can Do Better Than Me YCDBTM
Grapevine Fires GF
Your New Twin Sized Bed YNTSB
Long Division LD
Pity and Fear PaF
The Ice is Getting Thinner TIWGT
The album’s sections
The album’s eleven songs can be divided into sections that form a single love story.
The first two songs, BBC & IWPYH, are the setup for the love.
The third and fourth, NS & Cath, explain the separate pasts of the lovers.
The fifth and sixth, TB &YCDBTM, are the narrator analyzing their love.
Songs seven, eight, and nine; GF, YNTSB, & LD; are the deterioration.
Ten and eleven, PaF & TIWGT, are the separation.
Using the above framework, one can find linear causality within the album artwork and from song to song.
She makes him feel like himself
IWPYH reveals how their love was founded on the narrator’s incompleteness.
The narrator reveals the selfishness of his love by saying, “There are days when outside your window, I see my reflection as I slowly pass.”
Being near her window, her lens, allows him to see and feel himself.
This illumination contrasts the darkness he “trudged back” into in BCB, as well as the quality of lighting found in NS (his later childhood & adolescence).
Her qualities are unimportant because they are outside his frame of view. He does not see her. He remains separated, a recurrent theme in the album, by a window.
IWPYH is concerned with possessing the female’s heart without knowing what said heart entails.
The past and present of the female’s soul
Cath and TB are the explorations of the female’s soul.
The listener hears these truths in the same order as the narrator discovers them.
The details of how her heart had died are from Cath; TB is the resulting “delicate frame.”
Once the narrator fully explores and understands the territory of her heart -- possesses it -- the wanderlust returns.
The Ideal of the Shared Dream
Sleeping together is dreaming together.
Sleeping in the same bed transcends basic practicality.
The narrator’s ideal couple copilots the unconscious night flight.
However, the narrator fails to create this aerial scenario.
In TSB, he is predicting and accepting his oncoming solitary sleep. He is not single yet, but he knows time will make it so.
The key lyric is “what’s the point of holding onto what never gets used/ other than a sick desire for self-abuse.”
The narrator is rationalizing his future affair.
LD further defends the narrator's affair.
He explains that he had been left before. To avoid this, he decides to be the leaver.
The slow separation of LD
The winter of the relationship has begun. The “television [snows] softly as she “hunted for her keys.” The female is gathering the energy to leave the relationship although this process is not quick. Hence, the title of the song, Long Division. The unreadable elegantly bound book of IWPYH is now deciphered. The relationship’s impending doom was now “clear with every page.”
Mobility’s relationship to being “the remainder”
The song does not adequately describe the concept of being “the remainder.” However, one can glean details from other songs, such as the Talking Bird’s ability to leave the narrator behind.
The most poetic comment on being “the remainder” comes during Pity and Fear when the narrator says “when you can’t stand in place, you can’t tell who’s walking away and who remains.” The narrator is “chasing roads” and “distracted by open doors” because it allows him to avoid dealing with his dark and damaged self.
Ironically, the very same thing that drove him into the relationship destroys the relationship. The narrator’s self-imposed homelessness fosters a dependence on mobility. The album is the narrator’s process of understanding this concept, and also about retroactively understanding his previous relationship.
The end of a relationship compared to a one-night stand
In Pity and Fear, the narrator is left alone in the darkness of his past. Ostensibly, the song is about an affair or a one night stand. However, the song doubles as a description of the end of his actual relationship.
The setting of the song is in the bed he had foreshadowed giving away two songs prior. Thus, PaF is the eventuality of TSB’s decision.
First he is awake, then she “awakes in the night and slips out into the pre-dawn light. This process mirrors the order in which each party left the shared dream. His “envy for the stranger lying next to [him]” morphed from the earlier YCDBTM. He is envious that she can escape “into the pre-dawn light,” how she is capable of dismissing the relationship as a mistake and proceed with her life. In contrast, he remains in the darkness from which he ran from prior to their love.
The Ice was Getting Thinner
Processing the end of his relationship
The narrator processes the ending of his relationship in multiple ways.
In Grapevine Fires, the couple finds love in the shared knowledge of their dying relationship.
In Twin Sized Bed, the narrator focuses on the somber practicality of separation.
In Long Division, he explains his position with a mathematical distance.
In Pity & Fear, he succumbs to a dark and chaotic hopelessness.
Each song is specific to a different facet of acceptance.
The end of communication in the relationship
The destruction of communication is catastrophically displayed in Grapevine Fires. The “no words” of her “clean escape” in PaF spawned from GF and the earlier silence of BBC.
In Grapevine Fires, the narrator notes that the grapevines seemed left for dead.” Actual communication in the relationship is dying in a fiery blaze. Together, the narrator and his beau accept the oncoming darkness “as the plumes paint the sky gray.”
At the cemetery, they drink the wine of the grapevine and as “the girl laughed and danced through the field of graves,” the couple meditate on what once was.
The wanderlust is reactivated
One byproduct of the blaze is that it reactivates the narrator’s wanderlust.
“The wake-up call to a rented room” reminds him that he is not home.
“The ocean air fan[s] the flames” and he knows he is not at “the end of [her] road,” which he’d been chasing in BCB.
The literal bridge of Bixby Canyon and her figurative stream are right next to the ocean, remember. In the album’s finale, the “floes under [their] feet bled into the sea,” signaling a return to wandering, to the narrator’s chasing of a new end.
No rebirth from the grave
The closing song, The Ice was Getting Thinner, is not a grand finale, but it is more a dénouement. The song restates what has already been experienced in the previous songs but with more understanding, sadness, and acceptance.
In Long Division, the television was “snowing softly.” The precipitation once detached, almost subconscious, is finally processed in TIWGT.
The couple stands with their love buried between them in a “wintery grave” – the “crying child” of Cath is now dead.
However, graves are associated with both death and resurrection; a spring rekindling is possible. Unfortunately, due to the flawed communication grown in previous songs, there is no nuptial rebirth. Hence, “the ice kept getting thinner with every word that we’d speak…and nothing was left for you and me.”
The nearby sea of Bixby Canyon Bridge is reentered, but separately. Whereas they thought their ice “floes” would remain linked, they are not.
You and me vs. me and you
The ambiguous location of the ice is linked to the phrasing of the paired pronouns “me” and “you.”
The song is about the transition from the joined “you and me” to the separated “me and you.”
The former originates in IWPYH when the narrator says “how I wish you could see the potential/ the potential of you and me,” and the pronouns are further processed in YCDBTM.
By the time of TIWGT, he speaks the most tragic lines of the album:
"And when spring arrived we were taken by surprise
As the floes under our feet bled into the sea
And nothing was left for you and me."
The next paragraph accentuates the switch to “me and you.” He says the words much more slowly, finalizing their distance.
Reasoning for this interpretation
Alternative interpretations of the album are possible, of course. One might prefer a literal stance, that Bixby Canyon Bridge is about Kerouac and Grapevine Fires is about a Californian wildfire.
Another analyst might instead substitute muse for the female counterpart, posing the album as a mapping of the creative process.
The former is simplistic and an impediment to the exploration of art’s nuances. If a listener believes the album is merely a collection of events loosely bound by theme and sonic patterns, much of the lyrical interrelatedness will be missed.
Using a unifying framework – in this instance a single relationship – gently forces the listener to find new depths of connection between songs.
The album then becomes a solar system instead of merely “planets in proximity.”
(Of course, the above is less a truth and more a defensive explanation of how I process noise. I confess to my deficiencies in the musical realm. I would be at a loss if someone asked, “what does the album sound like.” [Life is compensation]).
Gain insight by studying the album cover
For insight into the meaning of the title, Narrow Stairs, the listener can study the album cover (how about you do that now for a few minutes? It will help.).
Not only can one find input as to the nature of the stairs, one can also match parts of the image to corresponding parts of the album, in spite of the cover’s abstract-mosaic style.
First, it is reasonable to look at the bigger themes and movements in the image, and then to focus on the details.
Investigation is naturally an oscillation between the two, as opposed to all of one then all of the other.
The color progression
From left-to-right, the cover progresses from skinny blue, green, and yellow;
to thick blue;
(followed by four solid bands: gray-white, purple, grey, and red-orange).
The songs correspondingly begin with the melancholy blue yet hopeful green and yellow of a new relationship.
(The latter colors are covered later)
Within the first third, there are white blocks with internal divisions. These windows often have teeth at the bottom.
What is abstractly crafted are windows looking out onto a city.
Not only might these reference the multiple window lyrics in the album, but also the lyric “his head was a city of paper buildings/ and the echoes that remain/ of old friends and lovers/ their features bleeding/ together in his space.”
With this in mind, the blocks of the cover can become a city-scape.
Note that the windows increase in height, in the beginning, prior to a sudden drop. The increase matches the growing optimism of the early, courting narrator.
From Mad Men analysis: high is future, low is past.
Aspects of the middle section
The start of the middle section is the first tree branch on the light blue block in the middle.
The blurry neurons signify a communication forming, the grapevines before the fires.
He begins to experience his lover.
Now, although here in the middle are the most sensual blocks on the cover, the windows have moved to the bottom.
The truths and his frame are not optimistic or heavenly, but are still deeply penetrating into the Cath, TB nature of his love.
There is but little green left, killed with these insights.
After this, the healthy green field is gone.
The most interesting block of the cover
The third section begins with the red, as well as with the static blocks instead windows.
The last ribbon of blocks contains the most illuminating block of the puzzle (seen on the right).
This tile’s background is wintery white; the color scheme matches the rest of the album, but almost every blue splotch is covered by the red.
Close up, this block is nebulous and vibrant.
To contrast, the six other versions are TV static: the colors hide into a patterned nothingness.
Outside of the static, there exists the blood-red burning of the grapevine fires.
The connective network mutates into an acid-burn in the lower right hand corner.
Three small bricks resemble the red of stoplights, but also a setting sun in a blood red sky.
The title’s ambiguity
The perceptive reader is eventually struck by the title’s ambiguity: stairs can be narrow vertically and/or horizontally.
Also, the title gives no clue as to which one direction the stairs are being used. This ambiguity is fitting since there are both descents and climbs throughout the album.
The first line of the first song is, in fact, “I descended a dusty gravel ridge/ beneath the Bixby Canyon Bridge.”
In Grapevine Fires, they climb to the hilltop to embrace their impending doom.
In Pity and Fear, the boat descends “below to where [he] thought he would never go” and at the song’s closing, he mentions how he recalls “the push more than the fall."
In IWPYH, the initial 4-minute-buildup is a musical climb.
Viewing the cover with the title at the top
The album cover in the jewel case is placed with the letters going top to bottom for an artistic purpose.
Viewing it this way is like viewing a set of stairs from the side. The journey is not in view. The image stays an image
Upon rotating the album cover (see right), one is standing directly before the steps.
When held with the tiles stretching sideways, the viewer feels the relationships of the colors as opposed to simply seeing them.
One can feel that the left and right sides are temporally simultaneous, and can feel how the narrator did not feel green and red together.
Importantly, from this perspective the purple band becomes a vivid silken curtain, a forest at night. (I could not figure out reasoning for the top, blood-orange band)
A music video similar to the cover
An apt comparison for the study of this album is the music video of Gotye’s "Somebody that I Used to Know."
Gotye’s video has a related color transformation although the colors and shapes are different.
The video does not stick to rectangles and instead opts for a patchwork of triangles (and a few trapezoids).
The color scheme is derived from the emotions after the relationship as opposed to during and immediately before.
The video presents the contrasting visions of both figures, whereas NS focuses primarily on the experience of the narrator.