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CD of The Week

Week of 8/20/18

    Death Cab For Cutie - Thank You For Today (Atlantic)

    It could be argued that Death Cab for Cutie have defined indie rock in the 20 years since they came on the scene. Starting as a heart-on-their-sleeve, not-quite-emo-adjacent group, they entered the mainstream musical consciousness with Transatlanticism in 2003, an album with fingerprints all over the surface of just about every upstart in the scene since. Two decades in, however, things are guaranteed to change. In recent years, frontman Ben Gibbard has gone through heartbreak, recorded in 2015's Kintsugi. The band also saw founding member Chris Walla part ways. As such, the next album intrinsically had a lot weighing on it; one way or another, it seemed primed to be a milestone in the band's story.

    With all these changes, it is no surprise that Thank You for Today doesn't sound like a Death Cab album at first. "I Dreamt We Spoke Again" is a watery fever dream of an opener. It sounds like it could have been Gibbard under those muffled waves and dance-adjacent beats, but only inasmuch as we know what album we're hearing. The vocals on "Gold Rush" are similarly indistinct as Gibbard's, though this time, it's the repeated chorus droning in the background which adds to the disconnect. It's not that some of these elements are foreign to Gibbard (The Postal Service proved a fascination with more inorganic sounds), but the usage feels different. Time and again, Thank You For Today sounds like a modern indie album first, with all the synth washes and echoes you'd expect from any other band of this stripe, and under all this, there's a Death Cab for Cutie album. A cameo from Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES on "Northern Lights" seals the deal; despite the relative age difference between the bands, this sounds more like a vehicle from Lauren's day job than Ben's.

    Where Thank You for Today hits the expected notes, everything is much more familiar, but that pop flash still creeps in. "Summer Years" is not too far removed from Death Cab classics, but the mood is updated for 2018. "Your Hurricane" is right in the wheelhouse of Gibbard's more brooding numbers if a bit slicker this time. There is, however, a respite in the wobbly piano of "60 and Punk." Those notes echo the early strains of "I Dreamt We Spoke Again," but also carry what may be the standout track here. The elegiac reflection feels urgent and earnest in a way the rest of the album does not, even at its best. It's hard to listen to without trying to discern who Gibbard is singing to: a dead hero? A struggling friend? Himself? How much is authentic, how much just a story? On an album that so fully embraces the current and the now, it is a moment that feels not only real and honest, but also feels far more connected to where one may imagine Ben to stand now, as someone looking back on a 20 year career (as opposed to, say, "You Moved Away," which feels forced and surface level, especially as compared to the confessionals of his youth).

    Even in these moments, this is an album which lives and dies on the musical idiom of today, not on the sound the band forged once upon a time. Some bands have made this transition cleanly, shifting through styles with a chameleon's ease while always bringing a trademark touch. Others have chased the elusive comet of the trend and fallen on their face (any number of classic rock bands entering the '80s could attest to this). The effortlessness of how these tracks would blend into the modern landscape is a testament to the skill of a group that, in many ways, sowed many of the seeds for the bands they are now looking to for inspiration. It will be interesting to see where the fans, both of the style and the band, end up settling.

    Death Cab for Cutie play The Tower Theater, with Charly Bliss opening, on October 9th and 10th (the 9th is sold out).

    **Donate $15 or more to Y-Not Radio to receive a download of Thank You For Today. Click here for details.
    Review by Alex Lupica

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