Thank You For Today

Death Cab For Cutie

Atlantic, 2018

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Is it harder to achieve success in a creative field, or to sustain it? It’s a fair question to ask.

Of those fortunate few musical acts who do manage to reach the top of the mountain, only a fraction stay there for long. Too many things can go wrong; success goes to people’s heads, or new relationships mess with the group’s chemistry, or trends change, or labels lose interest, or key band members decide it’s time to move on. Death Cab For Cutie has been no exception, experiencing more than one of the above bumps in the road, yet they’ve continued to roll onward, further cementing their status as one of the most resilient acts to emerge from the turn-of-the-millennium alt-rock explosion.

The loss of a figure as significant as co-founder/guitarist/keyboardist/producer Chris Walla might have ended a lesser group, but with frontman and main songwriter Ben Gibbard and rhythm section Nicholas Harmer (bass) and Jason McGerr (drums) standing fast, and the group’s 2015 album Kintsugi in the can, the remaining trio re-grouped with not one but two new members stepping in to fill Walla’s large shoes: Dave Depper (guitars/keys) and Zac Rae (keys/guitars). The new five-strong lineup did an admirable job of delivering authentic Death Cab magic on the Kintsugi tour, before going back into the studio to record this, the first Walla-less release in the group’s nine-album, seven-EP catalogue.

Thank You For Today finds Death Cab continuing to what it does best—deliver shimmering melancholy that’s so beautifully rendered that it feels uplifting even when it’s describing the most difficult moments in a person’s life. To the extent you notice a difference from the band’s last few outings, it’s in the heavier use of the sort of synthesizer textures and loops more often associated with Gibbard’s iconic one-shot side project The Postal Service, in which he teamed with electronic music producer Jimmy Tamborello.

Considering the recent history leading up to this album—Gibbard’s high profile marriage-to-and-divorce-from Zooey Deschanel, followed by Walla’s departure—it should come as no surprise that many of these songs address loneliness, distance, turbulent relationships, and the difficulty of change. Of course, that territory has always been Gibbard’s stock in trade; the difference heard here is more in the framing, the increased favoring of moody electronic elements over the anthemic guitars that propelled albums like my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Transatlanticism and Plans.

Death Cab has a history of atmospheric album openers, and “I Dreamt We Spoke Again” is another, a dream-play of a wished-for conversation, dominated by woozy synths and looped percussion until a rippling guitar figure, live drums, and lush harmonies help push it higher and harder, right up to its abrupt conclusion. “Summer Years,” a Gibbard/McGerr co-write, leads with more silvery guitar and a tight, jittery drum pattern, building to a steady thrum behind another reminiscence full of longing (“And I wonder where you are tonight / And if the one you’re with was a compromise / As we’re walking lines in parallel / That will never meet and it’s just as well”).

“Gold Rush” is an early highlight, with a deep groove powering a dense arrangement decorated with call-and-answer vocals. A fruitless, ringing plea for stability (“Change, please don’t change / Stay, stay the same”), it’s a Gibbard/Depper co-write that wins extra cool points by sampling the Yoko Ono track “Mindtrain.” Unfortunately, it’s immediately undercut by two of the weaker songs on the album. The soporific mid-tempo “Your Hurricane” attempts to stretch a single strong lyrical idea (“I won’t be the debris in your hurricane”) into a full-length song with only modest success, and “When We Drive” fares much the same; both songs feel like they’re mostly atmosphere, with precious little substance.

Fortunately, things pick up again at the halfway mark. “Autumn Love” brings the guitars back to the forefront in support of an impressionistic lyric carrying just enough juice to match up with the dynamic arrangement. “Northern Lights” is similarly winning, sinewy guitars and gauzy, chiming piano powering an upbeat tune about wallowing in the fleeting moments of a love that isn’t destined to last. It feels less than coincidental that the subsequent pair of songs—the haunting “You Moved Away” and the thrumming “Near/Far”—find Gibbard sifting through the wreckage of relationships that have dissolved into the distance.

Spare closer “60 & Punk,” built around Gibbard’s ghostly piano line, unspools like a conversation with an over-the-hill idol, culminating in a legitimate question for any artist deep into a successful career: “Were you happier when you were poor”? The question Gibbard leaves implied—and that he may be asking himself in his mid-40s—is, was the art you produced back when you were young and hungry better than what’s emerged since life began to get more comfortable?

Gibbard hasn’t lost his fire—there are sparks aplenty in tunes like “Gold Rush” and “Northern Lights”—but thanks to the arrangements, a substantial portion of this album ends up feeling rather samey, relying on synth washes to serve as mood lighting for songs that might have benefitted more from the impact of a punchy guitar riff. That said, even a solidly-good-though-maybe-not-great Death Cab album offers abundant craft, substance, and entertainment value. A concise listen at 10 songs and 39 minutes, Thank You For Today might not bowl you over on the first listen like some of the group’s earlier standouts, but its charms are many and the spell it weaves manages to feel both familiar and fresh.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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