For as unassuming of an artist as Ben Gibbard is, the impact and longevity he’s had on emo and indie-rock can’t be ignored. Neither his music or personality has ever been anything other than introverted and emotionally pensive, but something about those exact qualities, both with The Postal Service and Death Cab For Cutie, has created such a strong foundation within alt-rock that’s still relied on to this day. It also says a lot about the consistent acclaim of Death Cab For Cutie’s albums, albums that have always achieved a certain high level of quality for sure, but have more likely than not stuck so firmly thanks to the emotional responses that they’ve triggered in so many. Those sort of responses do circle back round to the band as well; it becomes something of a two-way street when those playing the music rely on those emotions just as much as those listening. And so with 2015’s Kintsugi, the first album without founding guitarist and since Gibbard’s divorce from ex-wife Zooey Deschanel, Death Cab For Cutie remained as plaintive and unassuming as ever, but the undercurrents are what made it shine, even if said subjects weren’t always directly in the firing line.
But there doesn’t always necessarily need to be this sort of highly contextual thoroughfare, as Death Cab For Cutie are more than capable of making great, heartfelt indie-rock completely on their own merits. That’s just what Thank You For Today seems to be, with the band readjusting and retooling for their first outing as a five-piece, but remaining steeped in the nostalgia and melancholy that’s made them so beloved. And a great deal of that is thanks to Ben Gibbard and his focus on keeping the writing as simple as possible, both thematically and in the poetry itself, casting wistful gazes at a changing world and holding on to older, purer memories for something that’s incredibly easy to gravitate towards. The scenery of his old neighbourhood is being gentrified at an alarming rate on Gold Rush, and with old friends leaving on You Moved Away and the despair at seeing musical heroes in a deteriorating state on 60 & Punk, the weight felt in Gibbard’s muted, disheveled delivery is palpable and consistently gripping. It’s the emphasis on distance – both physical and emotional – that keeps Thank You For Today so high though, and the joy that comes through in breaking that disconnect that’s yearned for on a track like I Dreamt We Spoke Again, and there’s a strong sense of pathos that comes with it.
And sure, as has remained the most persistent complaint with latter-day Death Cab For Cutie albums, Thank You For Today does feel incredibly lightweight and muted to almost inconsequential levels. It’s not helped by the prominence of both Dave Depper and Zac Rae on keyboards for a mix that can occasionally feel very washed-out and ethereal without going very far, and it leaves statements like that of feeling “irrationally betrayed” on You Moved Away without a whole lot of gusto behind it. But like with a lot of Death Cab For Cutie’s material, a sense of atmosphere bearing a similar level of melancholy feels just as necessary as the writing, and it can’t be denied that Thank You For Today ultimately does that well. Guitars are kept gentle and clear on the likes of Your Hurricane and Autumn Love, and played with a delicacy that allows them to falls as more of an accompaniment for some greater synth work. Even then, these mainly serve as beds to rest more melody on as is the case with Summer Years, but this more fluid, elemental style of instrumentation feels as though it really works for what Death Cab For Cutie are doing; it’s never showy or really all the marked in its execution, but it keeps everything nicely blended together regardless.
And going into that mindset of what Thank You For Today will be – a relatively low-key and easygoing album with little in the way of a clear standout – then Death Cab For Cutie have delivered once again. It perhaps won’t be the same heartstring-tugging experience as much of their seminal 2000s work, but those who’ve stuck around with them up to this point will find little to complain at here. For a band growing older gracefully and with poise, this feels like a logical path to go down, and though low on thrills, Thank You For Today has a heart that can’t go ignored.
For fans of: The National, Elbow, The Postal Service
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Thank You For Today’ by Death Cab For Cutie is released on 17th August on Atlantic Records.