Music

Death Cab for Cutie Strike Safe Satisfaction with 'Thank You for Today'

Photo: Eliot Lee Hazel / Courtesy of Atlantic Records

Thank You for Today spotlights why Death Cab for Cutie remain atop the pop-rock game (even if they've become too predictable and innocuous to ever outdo themselves again).

Thank You for Today
Death Cab for Cutie

Atlantic

17 August 2018

Death Cab for Cutie have spent the last two decades as one of the premiere American pop/rock bands. Fueled by the poetically earnest lyrics and characteristically endearing singing of frontman Ben Gibbard, their earliest collections built a solid foundation for what would become dual peak performances—and two of the best LPs of the decade—with 2003's Transatlanticism and 2005's Plans. Since then—and despite upholding their indie charm after years on Atlantic Records—they've released three very good, but not equally great or consistent, albums.

On their ninth outing, Thank You for Today, they continue that trend. While a bit subtler and dreamier than 2015's Kintsugi, the record generally feels very much like an extension of that sound and spirit, making it another safe but enjoyable work that maintains their idiosyncratic recipe. In other words, the full-length doesn't offer anything markedly fresh or startling, yet it once again reveals why Death Cab for Cutie are kings of the style.

Thank You for Today marks the quintet's first studio effort without guitarist Chris Walla (who left in 2014 and was replaced by guitarists/keyboardists Dave Depper and Zac Rae). Aptly described (in the press release) as both "beautiful and dynamic" and "darkly anthemic and bittersweet", the ten-track set captures Gibbard at his most "inward" and "personal". Specifically, he "weaves a thread throughout [it] about how interconnected geography is with memory, and how hard it can be to hold onto places, and to people, too".

As for the inclusion of Depper and Rae, bassist Nick Harmer says that they "helped add a playfulness that allowed us to take some risks.... There was a freedom in just playing with one another and letting [them] show us what they were capable of." Gibbard adds that the pair "bring such unbelievable skill sets to the band that we've never had", such as an "array of keyboards and synthesizers... for 'tiny melodies and ambient sounds'". Indeed, Thank You for Today is arguably the group's most shimmering and poppy album to date—although there are still plenty of rock elements as well—yielding an expectedly inviting and moving sequence.

Ironically, the band's greatest strengths have always been contrasting two polar opposite approaches: the buoyantly catchy radio hit and the heartrendingly relatable confessional. As you'd expect, Thank You for Today contains both. "Gold Rush", for instance, is a sunny and whimsical winner with '60s-esque qualities—shuffling percussion, breezy guitar passages, soft harmonies, and generally bright production—that revolves around Gibbard's notion that we lose important people and memories as places change. In contrast, closer "60 & Punk" is a somber piano ballad that uses affective ambience, somber melodies, and piercing lyricism ("The curtain falls to applause, and the band plays you off / He's a superhero growing bored with no one to save any more") to highlight how strong of a storyteller Gibbard remains. Like the best Death Cab for Cutie pieces, this one will linger within you long after it ends.

Of course, the record is filled with other strong material that still appeals. From the dense synth delights of opener "I Dreamt We Spoke Again" and the almost Americana jubilance of "Autumn Love" to the glitzy nostalgia of "Northern Lights" and sparse, dissonant beauty that is "You Moved Away", the quintet dependably utilizes its newest pair in the midst of providing the kind of nuanced yet full-bodied arrangements and distinguishing songwriting that makes their music so appealing, universal, and instantly recognizable.

As fetching as those compositions are, though, they're still a bit too familiar to amaze and impact. Sure, the songs are very good on their own merits—and, to be fair, it is difficult to revitalize your formula this far into your career significantly—but die-hard fans will nonetheless feel like they've heard this stuff before. This issue is even more pronounced on tracks such as "Summer Years", "Near/Far", and "Your Hurricane", all of which are sufficiently enticing yet too by-the-numbers to avoid instant evocations of past triumphs. The biggest offender of the bunch is "When We Drive", a pleasant but immediately forgettable centerpiece.

Death Cab for Cutie is a band that always makes really solid records and Thank You for Today is no exception. While it, like its three predecessors, fails to reach the near-perfect heights of the group's mid-2000 benchmarks—or even offer material to match later gems like "Stay Young, Go Dancing", "Grapevine Fires", "Unobstructed Views", and "No Room in Frame"—it's still a thoroughly charming and touching collection. As such, it spotlights why they remain at the top of the genre even if they've become too predictable and innocuous to ever outdo themselves again.

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