Death Cab for Cutie sprinkles moments of brilliance in an otherwise conventional album
The turn of the millennium ushered in a new era in music history with the rise of independent acts being one of the most significant developments. There was an explosion of avant garde experimentation, cultural defiance and a brimming desire of artists to express themselves in bolder ways. In the wake of this renaissance, rose alternative-rock / indie pop acts like Death Cab For Cutie. The band, originally a solo project spearheaded by frontman Ben Gibbard, officially formed in 1998 and went on to take the indie scene by storm.
After a string of albums which were successful in the underground and in indie circles, the band broke into the mainstream in 2003 with their most successful record to date, Transatlanticism. The quintet had cemented its status as a force to be reckoned with its innovative instrumentation, Gibbard’s unique vocals and singular lyricism. This brings us to the band’s latest project, Thank You for Today. Like all of the band’s previous work, it is a sonically consistent and focused record, albeit with some flaws.
The curtains part to greet us with a formulaic pop rock track, ‘I Dreamt We Spoke Again’. Through its minimalistic usage of three chords in the entire song and some admittedly superfluous lyrics, Gibbard revisits the ghost themes of previous records to lament a waning connection with a past friend/lover. The album then picks up pace with the track, ‘Summer Years’ which features the unique instrumentation and complex, layered lyricism that Death Cab is known for. The track is laced with twinkling piano chords and a subtle drum track. Over an ennui stricken set of guitar strings, Gibbard, with his paradoxically emotional yet deadpan vocals, recycles themes of separation and his acceptance of never being able to meet his one true love.
The lead single off the record, ‘Gold Rush’ samples Yoko Ono’s ‘Mind Train’ and is a more upbeat and fun track which could actually warrant a spot on a road trip playlist. The beautiful harmonies and interesting appearance of piano bode well with the track. Thematically, it is an unexpected deviation, with lyrics laced with nostalgia about the perpetual change of Gibbard’s home town of Seattle. ‘Your Hurricane’ features Gibbard flexing his lyrical prowess with incredibly moving verses about the narrator who essentially plays the part of the well wisher who’s learning to deal with someone who’s lost their way in life. The same theme seasoned with the shards of a broken heart makes a reappearance in ‘When we drive’. The track features a recurring two chord format with not much else to offer as far as instrumentation is concerned apart from the eerie notes that hang in the background.
The track ‘Autumn Love’ marks the point where the album loses any ounce of novelty and intrigue it had. The formulaic and overly commercial sounding instrumentals, together with the cliche’ “Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh” in the chorus make for little more than an excruciating listen. The track ‘Northern Lights’ barely offers anything interesting in terms of instrumentation or anything lyrically significant in the overuse of the celestial phenomenon.
The album finally gives the listener a reason to persevere with ‘You moved away’. Disregarding the superfluous lyrics about someone who (spoiler alert) moved away, the track does feature some interesting technical aerobatics with the slight manipulation of the pitch to create an eerie atmosphere and an endearing acoustic guitar on the side. It is interesting to watch Gibbard scrape the bottom of the barrel to come up with interesting devices to highlight isolation and separation – a recurring theme in this album and also past records like Transatlanticism. However, it pays off with an intriguing lyrical parallel with flickering fluorescent lights on the track ‘Near/Far’. The instrumentals are again a bit bland with the drums and harmonies being the track’s only saving grace. The curtain falls with ’60 & Punk’, which is an intimate and minimalistic piano ballad with a hypnotic bass line. The therapeutic lyrics offer the victim some respite from a lifetime of isolation, despair and self doubt. The track galvanizes you to be true to himself/herself and stop trying to be “the kid that you used to be”.
All in all, Thank You For Today is far from a significant landmark in Death Cab For Cutie’s discography. The scarcity of moments of brilliance scattered throughout the record do not make up for its lacklustre production and severe dearth of novelty and innovation. The few moments of lyrical and instrumental genius deserve to be relished if the listener has the capacity to forgive the conventionality of the record.