One would imagine that if a band has reached its second decade of sustained and well received existence, that any trepidations or uncertainties attached to new music or new artistic visions would become secondary fears. Sure, some decisions might be occasionally rendered as missteps by the public but after so much time, such offenses as they were, are usually deemed forgivable and not deal breaking. Herein lies were Death Cab for Cutie find themselves with ninth full length album, Thank You for Today (Atlantic Records, 2018). Yet, even now on the cusp of a double-digit discography, with the departure of founding member and multi-instrumentalist, Chris Walla, Thank You for Today signals the start of a band change more drastic than just the credence of time’s cushion can lend.
Still, knowing that this record presents a vulnerability that the band perhaps hasn’t had to face in a long time, the album itself doesn’t feel like a radical departure. Nor does the music evoke the feeling of an irreconcilable void at Walla’s absence. That’s not to say that Walla’s multi-faceted contributions are blasé enough to go unnoticed or easily replaced. It’s more so perceiving that the rest of the band has gleaned enough of what it means to make Death Cab’s music together that the cornerstone qualities and artistic objectives of the group don’t suddenly become aimless or lost after this kind of fundamental shift in Death Cab’s creative reservoir.
Death Cab for Cutie is:
Benjamin Gibbard (Vocals, Guitar, Piano)
Nick Harmer (Bass, Backing Vocals)
Jason McGerr (Drums, Percussion)
Dave Depper (Guitars, Keyboards, Backing Vocals)
Zac Rae (Keyboards, Guitar)
Despite the above preface alluding to the potential for justified nervousness, heard and absorbed in broad strokes, Thank You for Today is actually rather smooth sailing against the extensive backdrop of Death Cab for Cutie’s existent repertoire. The core of the music aligns and plays nicely with some of the more recognizable milestones: 2008’s Narrow Stairs (Atlantic/Barsuk Records, 2008), mainstream break record, Transatlanticism (Barsuk Records, 2003) but the album is hardly a cut and paste throwback. There are several instrumental components that deviate from the traditional rock band formula and when combined with production that’s astute enough to include these outlier sounds amidst a sound stage that presents in a musically conventional way without burying said sonic uniqueness, that’s how a record earns praise for artistic balance between its history and its yet-unseen future ideas.
Rounded out at an even, but not overwhelming, 10 song track list and under 40 minutes of run time, Thank You for Today is a work that’s densely packed but instead of subjecting listeners to an abrupt aural assault, its intricately assembled amalgam of sounds incites intrigue and many replays. The return of Rich Costey as producer following Kintsugi (Atlantic, Barsuk Records, 2015) likely contributes to some sense of musical continuity. However, the cleaner guitar, quirky toned keys, and snappy percussion that Death Cab for Cutie has surrounded itself with for years beyond Costey’s input as a mixer and producer, stands out even from the outset of the record with soft-edged but very distinct and mildly distorted keys contrasting against the see-saw of double kick beats and a fairly dry, but still full-sounding, snare hit. All of it together acting as an immediate pull of familiar well before Gibbard’s signature voice unleashes the opener’s title.
Unexpected instrumental aspects of various tracks – the kalimba on “I Dreamt We Spoke Again”; the condensed, distorted effect on Gibbard’s vocal on “Gold Rush”; the sitar and psychedelic rock touches on “Autumn Love”; and the drizzling toy piano in “Your Hurricane” – are hardly what one would deem mixed front and center in their respective songs. However, each is left just solitary enough to be noticed at sporadic moments and thus, prompt rewinds. Re-exploration can be notably fun if for no other reason than to see when each part surfaces and how they manage to stand up against the leading guitars, tone bending synthesizers, the subtle but crucial bass pulse, and of course, the drum kit.
In some ways, Thank You for Today embodies the essence of a theme and variation. The album isn’t a literal example of said song form. All the same, in searching for a good way to describe how these songs can feel quintessentially Death Cab but also project singularly memorable sound style, the record seems to lay down a comfortable, well-worn foundation and then works outward, to fold in ideas that don’t elicit an easily predicted expectation and response from audiences. “Summer Years” exemplifies this fanned out creative approach well. Staple guitars, drums, and bass capture the ear at the front hook, setting up a strongly conventional alternative rock frame. Then, a spritzing of Death Cab’s established reputation for mildly pensive melody coloration by way of phrases that oscillate between minor and major intervals, fit the band’s scaffolding around Gibbard’s lyrical modus operandi. This set up all before top layer touches like spacey, tone wavering synths befitting of a Tycho composition introduce the beloved flavor of the band with some differentiating sonic garnish and a new way for Gibbard’s musings to engage listeners on both a sensory and emotional level.
“When We Drive” evokes a similar approach. However, aside from the inclusion of an unassuming but not elusive marimba and a fluttery smooth toned synth pattern running underneath in the mix, the biggest deviator for the track is actually an addition by subtraction. Following a song like “Your Hurricane,” which dressed Gibbard’s voice in an effectual style not far from the classic aesthetic of Plans (Atlantic Records, 2005), the midway track here breaks the glossy ornamentation around the vocal for a much plainer, true-to-form presentation, which makes not only Gibbard’s singing, but the narration itself, stick out more rather than less, due to an establishment of contrast that doesn’t even happen in the song itself. (Just another nod to demonstrating how overall album flow and track placement greatly impact listening experiences.)
You and I were born in motion
Never in one place for too long a time
And now it’s the only way we know to survive
I like the way your hair tangles
The way your sun tan’s only on one side
We always keep the windows open wide
–Lyrics from “When We Drive”
A similar, slick, what-you-see-is-what-you-get aesthetic floats in on “Northern Lights,” acting as “When We Drive’s” opposing bookend, outside the psychedelic, runny mosaic of “Autumn Love.” Studio piano that would be right at home on any early 2000s Coldplay cut, catches the jagged shakes of a tambourine and the repetitious bouncing, lower octave, metallic lead guitar like a parachute scooping up drag wind; its sleek character keeping the needle of the band’s collective tonal intensity from going anywhere too sonically eccentric. On the one hand, it could be argued that the instrumental side of things is kept fairly even keeled to leave more emphatic leeway for Chvrches‘ front vocalist, Lauren Mayberry. However, where she pairs with Gibbard most prominently during the choruses, the completely unsurprising decision to leave her no more than maybe equal in level (but honestly more dynamically rescinded) renders this thought process unsubstantiated.
Mayberry’s selection as Gibbard’s co-vocalist partner becomes even further dressed in irony when considering the nature of Mayberry’s own musical aesthetic withinChvrches– one which is littered with peaks and valleys across instrument tone, pure dynamic direction, and stylistic shaping via electronic molding. If the album had thereon taken a dramatic but understandable turn off the lead of Mayberry’s inclusion, maybe injecting some tonal teeth with sharper synth tones and wider rhythmic contrasts for hooks, the effect of the unexpected factor quietly reached on the album would likely have garnered a much more positively explosive reaction and taken the push for uniqueness from a line drive to a solid home run.
I watched you stumbling around this dusty town
I heard your bottle talking way too loud
As the Federales tried to hunt you down
For something you can’t remember what was about
– Lyrics from “60 and Punk”
Creative critique like this seems unfair though, as despite the sensible line of logic provided, knowing that Gibbard is generally reflecting on a specific stage in his life and specific states of memory around that stage as the context of connecting past and present are concerned, anything other than a potential look to the future in a subtler song like “60 and Punk” would feel like a cliffhanger out of left field. Though a closer about the remiss hindsight of older musician life sounds despondent and indeed well is, by concluding Thank You for Today in such a conceptually finite way, listeners are free to look upon this release as a fully enclosed series of thoughts and consider that as Death Cab for Cutie continues to move forward post-Chris Walla, there’s all the chance in the world that what comes after this fully finished sonic sentence about mid-life, is something much more drastically new and endless in possibility. In the meantime, Thank You for Today, while not an adventure running on 12-cylinders, is classic in its display of Death Cab for Cutie’s musical character and provides enough melodic magnetism to stoke faith in the band as they take on a new chapter not common this late in the game.
The band comes to Brooklyn for two shows at King’s Theater on 13 and 14 October.
Full tour list and ticket links HERE.
Keep up with Death Cab for Cutie through its official website and these social media platforms: