Album Review: Death Cab For Cutie - Thank You For Today

Words by Maddy Howell

With their debut record now steadily approaching its twentieth birthday, the members of Washington-based quintet Death Cab For Cutie were barely out of their teens when their musical journey commenced. Having navigated their way through line-up changes, shifts in sound and a wealth of criticism accompanying each variation on their initial configuration, growth has become an imperative aspect of the band's story. With definitive albums such as 'Transatlanticism' and 'Plans' firmly cementing them within the indie scene, Death Cab For Cutie's more recent material had seemed to show signs of a dwindling flame. 

Whilst still possessing vague littered moments of hope, the emotion-drenched, true soul-filled heart of the band had seemed to be beating slower on 2015's 'Kintsugi', with many of the best-loved aspects of the quintet's sound seemingly traded out for a more lackluster production style. With the departure of founding member Chris Walla rendering their latest release as the first completely without his input, there was an uneasy shakeup on an already unstable ride, leaving many shrouded in uncertainty over what would come next...

Opening on the tranquil synth-led I Dreamt We Spoke Again, unexpected glimpses of the Death Cab For Cutie of old are instantly offered up, as vocalist Ben Gibbard laments the loss of a loved one in a haunting, almost regretful manner.  This theme of regret and longing for times and people that have left is a theme that spreads itself across the entire record, with tracks such as You Moved Away and Gold Rush delving into the ideas of change and the process of aging, projecting the inevitable growth the band has endured throughout their extensive career.

Upon adopting a producer such as Rich Costey, it can be expected that slight divergences towards a poppier style will be taken, as previously established on 'Kintsugi'. The exultant, 'Plans'-reminiscent Northern Lights is a prime example of these influences in action, taking on a more radio-friendly tone alongside added vocals from CHVRCHES vocalist Lauren Mayberry. Despite it's more light-hearted, pop-focused undertone, the track still packs an incredible emotional punch, showing much more promise for this side of the band than previously heard.

Unexpectedly, the slight pop influence is largely what makes 'Thank You For Today' enjoyable, littered with infectious synth lines on tracks such as When We Drive. This sound-shift can be attributed to the band's latest line-up alterations, with touring guitarist/keyboardists Dave Depper and Zac Rae joining the ranks for this release. With these additions, it becomes difficult to dismiss easy comparisons to The Postal Service, with the fully-embraced pop elements and reliance on keys pushing the band's sound to areas it has never quite breached before. 

However, seemingly distracted by these line-up changes and a polished production, Gibbard appears to have let his pen slip with some clumsy lyrics, most notably on the cringe-worthy, "You used to be such a delicate kid / A lonely fish in a sea full of squid" on otherwise impressive track Your Hurricane. These faults in lyrical quality enable the band's overall form to take a huge hit, as an outfit once famed for their intricate songwriting and immersive soundscapes. However, despite its slight fluctuations, the lyrical focus on relationships, nostalgia, and gentrification presents a gentle and natural progression for the band, with some more cliche themes blending into some new areas for the quintet. 

Though there are clear moments of magic on the release, many of the record's problems arise in the production. With almost every track absolutely dripping in reverb, the overworked nature appears too glossy and almost sickly sweet. With perfection seemingly the aim, the lustrous outer shell begins to overshadow the moments of fragile and intense honesty Gibbard is usually able to project through his vocals. Hazy and downbeat tracks such as Summer Years are overshadowed to the point of extinction, with the result being little more than a watered-down effort of what should have been, buried under stacks of reverb.

However, fortunately, the production is unable to obliterate the sheer emotion projected in closing track 60 & Punk, with Gibbard voicing his disappointment surrounding the actions of someone he once admired. With its waltzing piano tones offering the perfect backdrop for Gibbard's laments of an alcoholic losing their way, the result is nothing short of heartbreaking, offering the perfect final moments of the album in quintessential lugubrious Death Cab For Cutie fashion. 

Evolution is something that has woven its way through every word and note of Death Cab For Cutie's work in their twenty-year career, with each new record presenting a unique and refreshed side to the band's ever-expansive sound. On 'Thank You For Today', the quintet seems to have fully settled into the comfortable middle ground that they began to burrow into on 'Kintsugi', no longer unpredictable, no longer too distinctive, but still able to offer up some impressive downbeat indie tracks. Though they may have succumbed to expectation, there's something reassuringly homely about this incarnation of the band, a tried and tested recipe that will never fail.