The ninth album from Ben Gibbard and Co. is their strongest album of the 2010s, a dubious achievement that nonetheless deserves recognition for its rare moments of shining, indie-pop songwriting.
On “Gold Rush,” the first single from Thank You for Today, Ben Gibbard waxes about the many ways his native Seattle has changed over the past two decades, mourning memories of old buildings and intimate moments under street lamps before sighing: “Please don’t change/Stay the same.” The accompanying video follows suit, a dorky-haircut take on the Verve’s iconic “Bittersweet Symphony” visual that features Gibbard getting knocked around by rude passersby during a daytime neighborhood stroll, ending up trapped in a sea of pedestrians glued to their phones. The get-off-my-lawn-ness of it all isn’t fresh territory for Death Cab, a band reputed for cloying sincerity that has nonetheless occasionally showed some teeth regarding the ephemera of modern life. Recall the closing moments of 1998’s Something About Airplanes’ “Amputations,” which samples a speech that features the following excerpt: “In this modern day, we have instant coffee and instant tea—instant disbelief, that’s the reason we will never become anything.”
But while “Amputations” is indicative of Death Cab’s early, beloved Barsuk days—chiming guitars, soft-focus songwriting, Gibbard’s endearingly unadorned vocals—”Gold Rush” is one of a few moments on Thank You for Today that embody the lows of the band’s 2010s output. Constructed around a sample of Yoko Ono’s “Mind Train,” the song feels inert in its steady chug, with watery processing laid atop Gibbard’s vocal take. Thank You for Today marks the first album Death Cab have put to tape since longtime member and in-house producer Chris Walla’s departure, but it’s the second record of theirs helmed by studio vet Rich Costey, whose credits include several Muse albums and Interpol’s divisive major-label move Our Love to Admire. Once again, his production touches lend these 10 songs a competent, anonymous sheen.
While it’s tempting to fully blame Costey’s presence for Thank You for Today’s emptier moments, the fault unmistakably lays with Gibbard and the gang. The album’s faults are a byproduct of Death Cab’s tendency to dip their toes into textures incongruous with Gibbard’s songwriting, which emerged around their 2008 LP Narrow Stairs. While that album found great success in exploring a variety of styles, from Pet Sounds chamber-pop to tricky math-rock breakdowns, its 2011 follow-up, Codes and Keys, went full-bore in ditching guitars for airless atmospherics and brooding song structures, making for the band’s most dismal effort to date—a classification that even Gibbard himself agrees with.
Thank You for Today isn’t as uniformly bland as Codes and Keys—if anything, it’s the strongest Death Cab album of the 2010s, a dubious achievement that nonetheless deserves recognition. But there’s moments that suggest Gibbard and the rest of Death Cab are still struggling through the beige malaise that has cast a pall over their more recent work. “I Dreamt We Spoke Again” suffers from more vocal processing along with drifting tones and a cheaply stolen New Order bassline; the plodding “When We Drive” possesses all the charm of a car commercial, while “You Moved Away” smothers its lyrical musings on time passed and friends left behind—themes that course throughout Thank You For Today’s often-bloodless veins—with pitter-patter percussion and soupy atmospherics.
Closing track “60 & Punk” is possibly one of the most acerbic songs Gibbard’s written since Plans’ infamous “Someday You Will Be Loved,” casting a critical eye on besotted, long-in-the-tooth lifers over echo-laden piano and brushed drums before arriving at a crushing, open-ended question: “Were you happier when you were poor?” Even amid its melancholia, there’s something funny and self-aware about the 42-year-old Gibbard referring to a past-his-prime bandleader as “A superhero growing bored/With no one to save anymore.”
Prior to Thank You for Today, it’s been slim pickings in terms of album highlights in Death Cab’s 2010s oeuvre—so it’s something of a relief that this latest release offers a few of the band’s strongest songs since Narrow Stairs, gossamer indie-pop gems that recall the band’s glory days, if only for a few minutes. “Summer Years” twists and turns with interlocking guitar lines and a sneakily paced drumbeat, while the peppy “Autumn Love” recalls The Photo Album in its verse structure, before hitting the type of effervescent chorus that Atlantic-era Death Cab have occasionally excelled at.
Then there’s “Your Hurricane,” possibly the loveliest Death Cab song in more than a decade, a ballad cloaked in vintage-4AD guitars and an emotive vocal take from Gibbard that can hang with his best work. Scuff up the clean-sounding production and maybe close your eyes, and it sounds classic—a broken-clock reminder that, despite recent missteps, Gibbard’s still capable of these silken moments without sounding totally adrift. Capitulating to nostalgia is often an unwise stylistic choice, but perhaps Death Cab could look back a bit more in the future. The past doesn’t always have to be a hindrance—sometimes it can just be a nice place to rest for a while.
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