Here’s an idea: If your band is built around the deeply personal and raw emotional core of your singer, maybe don’t smother their voice with digital filters and reverb that make it sound distant, disconnected, and synthetic.
Death Cab for Cutie should really know better. The last time the band consistently fell into this trap was on Codes and Keys, far and away the band’s low-water mark. But what immediately greets listeners on the new Death Cab album, Thank You For Today? Ben Gibbard vocals that feel a mile away via the production’s reverb, effects, and mixing.
On this new album, Death Cab’s consistent career excellence works against the band. Thank You For Today is not a bad album in a vacuum, but it’s a bad album for Death Cab.
Things begin with mild wistful musings on a relationship that’s faded into nothing more than dreams and memories on “I Dreamt We Spoke Again.” While the vocal effects are toned down on the follow-up, “Summer Years,” the reverb softness applied still make them feel on a separate sonic plane from the guitar playing as Gibbard reflects on a connection that could’ve been something, but it’s “just as well” that it never happened. The vocal production continues to the third track, “Gold Rush,” a direct bemoaning of Seattle’s rapid growth coming at the expense of the city’s character and soul. It’s #SaveTheShowbox in song form, with a chorus plea of “Please don’t change … stay the same” and unambiguous verses (“I remember a winter’s night / We kissed beneath the street lamp / Outside our bar near the record store / That have been condos for a year and more”).
Thank You For Today’s 10 songs don’t pop, in part because Gibbard’s songwriting doesn’t burn with the same fire as past works. Death Cab’s best songs touch on themes of desperate love, existential confusion, and scorned bitterness. In recent years, Gibbard’s personal life has been at its most stable point since the band’s inception, and there’s a sense of contentment that washes over much of the songwriting. Yes, the wistfulness prevails, but there’s an acceptance of it that—while a wonderful development for Gibbard—doesn’t make for compelling songs for fans looking for him to filter their own messy feelings.
While these three tunes make sense to set the lyrical template for Thank You For Today—which largely centers on gentle melancholy memories—it’s still bizarre to have them set the sonic tone for the album. The entire first half of Thank You For Today drags, through to its conclusion on the downtempo pace of “When We Drive.” There’s a soft serenity to the instrumental soundscapes, but the lack of an urgency makes everything feel adrift without direction. The choices seem even more strange when the album picks up and vastly improves on its second side.
“Autumn Love” starts the album’s second half with an immediate injecting of energy. Marrying an acoustic guitar base with a full, bright backing, it’s the first time in this collection of songs that it sound like the band is actually having fun playing. The pace quickens even more on “Northern Lights,” the tune that bears the most similarity to the tunes on the previous Death Cab album, Kintsugi (which is a very good thing). The latter half also boasts “Near Far,” an upbeat love song about being there for a person who is distant and struggling. How none of these tracks were sprinkled throughout the doldrums of the first five tunes is baffling.
On the instrumental side, Thank You For Today marks the first album without founding guitarist Chris Walla, and his absence might account for the lack of as many catchy melodic hooks.
In the end, the fatal flaw of Thank You For Today—even above the questionable vocal production—might be its poor sequencing. It’s been a while since an album’s felt like it could so vastly improve with mere track order changes to improve flow and break up sections that become monotonous with stagnant tone and tempo. There might be a good album in Thank You For Today, but it’s not the one presented.