There are milestones in a band’s career. A third album can often make or break it. A fifth album cements it. Death Cab For Cutie have often, in that regard, been out of step—their breakthrough album, Transatlanticism, was their fourth, and perhaps their best-known; Narrow Stairs was their sixth. Thank You For Today, released last Friday, is their ninth.
If you get the impression that I am telegraphing something here or attempting to cushion a blow, well, the fraction up the top says it all. Fans left unmoved by preceding album Kintsugi (nonetheless lauded) are unlikely to find the corner here. Not that this is a complete flop; Thank You For Today is a fine enough album, and Death Cab For Cutie’s signature beats — those thrumming percussive lines, the lush, warm guitar — are out in force. But there are thousands of fine albums released every year, and undoubtedly thousands of reviews of fine albums as well. To give too much credit to a band for not sounding terrible is to declaw the entire industry, and a disservice to a band this far into their career.
So Thank You For Today is a fine album. There is something distinctly ‘Cascadia’ about this album; a tranquilised summer, a minimalism that speaks of northern suburbs; white footpaths; neat apartments. Second track Summer Years is lovely in its simplicity, and the following Gold Rush stands out with its strong rhythm and light and playful bassline; a real blue sky bike ride of a track. There are ambitious highs on this album: the sweet and full guitar solo on opening track I Dreamt We Spoke Again; the subtle, grinding intro on similarly airy and pretty When We Drive with its new wave revival guitar, and the space in each song’s arrangement (no new territory for Death Cab For Cutie) works well with the lighter tone of the album.
Nonetheless, the album lacks. Most of the lyrics here are forgettable, but Your Hurricane with its bizarre squid analogy jerks the listener out of their trance, rambling lyrics about reclaiming security deposits on You Moved Away fall limp, and closer 60 & Punk is just dire with lyrics like “A superhero grown bored with no one to save anymore”, let alone the clunking piano. Likewise, Autumn Love, one of the latter tracks, boasts a bold sing-along chorus that sounds like a hound dog abandoned by his owners for the day. A collaboration with touring mates CHVRCHES’ Lauren Mayberry on Northern Lights shows promise but the execution is uninspired. The whole second half of the album, in fact, falls somewhere between dull nothing and clumsy gaffes.
But there is something to be said for clumsiness. Optimistically, Thank You For Today gestures in new directions for Death Cab For Cutie, and the vitality of making mistakes cannot be understated. This is not the flop of a band submitting to its death throes and touring regimes, but rather one that should be emboldened by a lukewarm reception to strike out defiantly after those threads it was too timid to pursue on this record. I await their next move with interest.