Every time one of my favorite artists releases a new album, I get a little nervous. It’s not necessarily because I don’t have faith in them to put out something mind-blowing; it’s just that I’m scared their new music will change how I view their discography as a whole and the memories I have with that band. The more music a band puts out, the more of themselves they’re exposing. In recent memory, bands like Arcade Fire, Interpol and Weezer have gone from debut albums that received critical acclaim to albums that received extremely mixed reviews, in many instances giving off the perception that the band sold out as not only musicians, but also people.
So when I heard the first single “Gold Rush” off of Death Cab for Cutie’s latest album Thank You for Today, I became a little nervous. The new song was catchy, but it felt so different from their previous work. I couldn’t tell if it was the Yoko Ono sample, or the lyrics, but it felt off. I didn’t want it to change the way I listen to Death Cab, the band that’s been with me through the majority of my emotional teenage life.
But the Death Cab that put out some of my favorite albums like Transatlanticism, The Photo Album and especially We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes is now over 20-years-old. To expect them to continue putting out the same music that they were putting out back then is to expect the band to refrain from any sort of musical growth — a band that lacks growth lacks maturity and artistry.
And grow they have. Not only does this album feature a completely new lineup for the band, with the departure of Chris Walla after 17 years of playing guitar and producing for the band, and the addition of Zac Rae and Dave Depper (who I had the privilege of interviewing last month), but also features a sound different from any Death Cab album in the past.
Although it could be compared to Narrow Stairs, the album features drastically different songwriting and sonic textures. They’ve never shied from incorporating keys and synths into their music, and the addition of a full-time keyboardist shines through in all of the new songs. In every song, there’s at least some sort of ambient pad backing things up, or a Rhodes electric piano accompanying guitar, or even acoustic piano. But although the core sounds of a Death Cab instrumental are there, it all still feels a little different.
Dave Depper does a great job at creating those lead guitar lines Chris Walla was so adept at, but some of the lines feel less risky. They feel like they’re missing a little bit of grit. Granted, this is a completely different album from some of Death Cab’s older, “heavier” stuff, but certain moments like the last half of “Summer Years,” brings back a little bit of that grit that Death Cab used so well, and so sparingly. The songs are catchy, but not too corny (with the exception of “Autumn Love," which may be one of Death Cab’s weakest songs.)
But, Nick Harmer and Jason McGerr continue to hold it down in the rhythm section, giving performances as solid as any previous Death Cab record. The band sounds different, but the new members seem to make it sound more complete. However, Walla’s production touch still feels a little bit lost. One thing that really stood out about Death Cab records was how crisp and dynamic they were. Thank You For Today seems a little more compressed than previous records, but still feels clear. However, contemporary indie rockers Foxing’s most recent record, Nearer My God, which was produced by Walla, is unsurprisingly comparable to old Death Cab records.
However, as good as their songs are instrumentally, the band is nothing without Ben Gibbard’s lyricism and sense of songwriting. Best known for writing lyrics that span from overwhelmingly depressing to incredibly romantic, Gibbard’s role as the lead vocalist and songwriter in the group is a position that has gained widespread fame for the group.
Originally, I thought that one of my biggest complaints about this record was going to be the lack of growth from a band that has been around almost as long as I have been alive. And while they have grown slightly instrumentally, Gibbard’s vocals and songwriting ability have aged like a fine wine. His voice somehow has gotten more delicate and smooth as he has aged.
But the biggest contribution Gibbard has on this record are his lyrics. My initial draw to Death Cab as an angsty teenager was Gibbard’s songs about heartbreak, love and relationships, but hearing a married 40-year-old sing about those things would feel kind of weird. Luckily, as Gibbard has matured, so have the basis of his lyrics (I used to joke about how happy I was when he and Zooey Deschanel split because of how good his lyrics were when he was in a sadder state, as cruel as that sounds).
Although Ben’s happily married again, he still sings about things he’s passionate about. The first single from the album, “Gold Rush,” for example, is about the expansion of the tech industry in the band’s hometown. Although the message might be kind of overdone (see: get off your stupid phone, you dumb kids), it’s done in a fresh and compelling way. Songs like “When We Drive” and “60 & Punk” feel more grown up, commenting on relationships and realizing that your idols aren’t as great as you once thought they were.
After the first few listens, I was getting ready to talk about the regression of one of my favorite bands. But the more I put off writing this and listened to the record, the more those bad comments started to turn into good ones. A lot of people are likely to give this record a listen and write it off as being a mediocre indie rock record. But it deserves more credit. When you listen to this in the context of the rest of the band’s discography, it’s clear that while the band has maintained the elements that brought them such critical acclaim, they’re also embracing the modern era of music they find themselves in.