Death Cab for Cutie - Thank You For Today
by Stephen Ong
I must preface this by stating that Transatlanticism is one of my favourite albums, and I’ve always held subsequent Death Cab albums to that same (ridiculously high) standard. So it’s no surprise that after Narrow Stairs, I began to develop a love-hate relationship with the band. 2011’s Codes and Keys was easily their worst album since their debut, and while the opening four tracks of Kintsugi are some of Death Cab’s best, the album overall felt lifeless (the vocal effects on Ben Gibbard’s voice being my biggest gripe). Somewhere along the road, Death Cab became sterile.
The first two singles of Thank You For Today are symptomatic of this cleaned-up, gentrified atmosphere. In both songs, Gibbard’s voice is lathered with vocal effects, and his lyrics carry none of the brutal honesty that made their songs such an enticing listen. I Dreamt We Spoke Again is the band going through the motions, and is as uninteresting as Death Cab songs go. Gibbard sounds as if through a filter, giving a half-hearted performance. As he sings, ‘Your voice was like a ghost,’ it only evokes apathy for the reused metaphor. The bustling Gold Rush is the lowest point on the album, where a backing vocal chants ‘gold rush’ behind lyrics about urbanisation. Gibbard is almost an observer in the song, and lyrics like, ‘I feel like a stranger here,’ are too on the nose to elicit any emotion.
Yet despite the overly sanitised production, the rest of the album never falters. Ben Gibbard maintains a surprising amount of self-awareness that many musicians of his stature fail to do, and the songs manage to give off an aura of warmth and excitement missing from much of their recent material. Ex-guitarist Chris Walla is barely missed on Summer Years, which features intricate instrumental work. It would not only be at home on Narrow Stairs, but be a highlight on the album.
For a band that is over twenty years into their career, they’ve managed to create an album that sounds fresh and a development of their work, while being easily recognisable. The first synth-filled minute of You Moved Away is Postal Service-esque, and the acoustic guitar and pitter-pattering drums that come in successfully navigate the fine line between reminiscent and new. And though 60 & Punk is as musically close to Binary Sea as you can get, it contains Gibbard’s most sincere and touching lyrics in a while. It’s an ode to a hero that let the narrator down, and Gibbard’s trademark cutting words return with, ‘There’s nothing elegant in being a drunk / It’s nothing righteous being 60 and punk.’
However, the best songs on the record are those that diverge from what we’ve come to expect from Death Cab. When We Drive is essentially 80s pop, led by synths and a bass. While Gibbard was once being driven home in the passenger seat, he now proclaims, ‘Climb into the backseat and close your eyes / I’ve got the wheel.’ It’s even more honest and mature a love song than the many that Gibbard has written. The liveliest song on the album, Northern Lights, is nostalgic and a reminder of the energy they used to have. It’s another example of Gibbard’s growth in maturity – the Jesus and Mary Chain are no longer symbolic of past lovers, but it is the ‘silhouette on Dyes Inlet, against the silver sheen of a moon like painted glass.’ The cherry on top is Lauren Mayberry’s brief appearance on backing vocals – Death Cab have not served up a more enjoyable, consistent album in a very long time.
If anything, Kintsugi was the band’s return to form, and Thank You For Today is Death Cab reinvigorated. The quality has always been there, just not throughout an album like this. Death Cab, and particularly Ben Gibbard, are finding themselves building on older material to improve their songcraft. The band no longer feel directionless, like many older bands do, and despite the couple of duds on the record, the album is paced brilliantly to make it an enjoyable front to back listen.