'Difficult'. It's a word which must have been bandied around Atlantic Records' US headquarters when Death Cab for Cutie delivered their second album for the major label. After signing the melodic powerhouse of a four-piece, Atlantic must have envisaged more of the same open-hearted bursts of sunny, melancholic, indie-pop.

2005's 'Plans' pointed that way at times, but it failed to live up to their past work. Expansive and wide-screen in sound, it lacked the quality of songs in its latter half to scale the heights of 2003's 'Transatlanticism' - still their finest record to date. Nonetheless, there was enough in 'I Will Follow You into the Dark', 'Summer Skin' and 'Crooked Teeth' for the label to remain happy.

'Narrow Stairs' is a different proposition altogether. It is a fine record which, as a complete work, easily outshines its predecessor. However, as its title suggests, it's a claustrophobic and dark work which strips back the group's bright melancholy and replaces it with something far closer to outright despair.

Again, singer Ben Gibbard reaches deep into the heart to retrace the group's trademark themes of heartbreak, but here such heartbreak is sung about much more directly and in a gloomier, almost creepy manner. On 'You Can Do Better Than Me' he sings "I'm starting to feel we stayed together out of fear of dying alone" against a backdrop of a jaunty organ-rock sound that brings to mind 'Pet Sounds'. Such a lyric against such a musical backdrop typifies the dark, uneasy feeling 'Narrow Stairs' emits. Yet it remains compelling.

Where synths and keyboards crept ever more into 'Plans'; this has been abandoned on 'Narrow Stairs', where multi-tracking has also been cast aside in place of a more primitive sound. For the most part, the album is simply four guys in a room. This sense bleeds into the songs, notably lead single 'I Will Possess Your Heart' which begins with a creepy hiss and menacing bass line as a mid-tempo groove builds over five minutes. Then come the lyrics. Lyrics which place Gibbard in the role of a stalker singing that: "I will possess your heart." As a lead single it's effective in pointing to what awaits over the album's 11 tracks.

Some old-skool Death Cab remains. There are traces of it in 'Your New Twin Sized Bed', but a sense of despair still undercuts it, just as it does on the reasonably upbeat 'No Sunshine', which details the death of an optimist. Gibbard too returns to his hero Jack Kerouac on 'Narrow Stairs'. 'Opener 'Bixby Canon Bridge' references the beat writer's 'Big Sur' novel.

Old-themes aside, however, Death Cab have sauntered into new territory, exploring a darker side, which proves a compelling listen. It's one which hasn't affected sales either - they've scored their first Billboard number one in the US. A brave record and devoid of a duff track, in some ways – and in their style - it's their 'OK Computer', similar in its nervy feeling of edgy tension. Some Death Cab fans will however lament their old band.

Steve Cummins