One of the most exhilarating moments of any Death Cab for Cutie song is at the end of the first chorus of We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes opener “Title Track.” The whole band sounds sunken in a way, the sound buried in the mix. It’s a fake-out, though, and the song snaps to the fore after some sharp drum beats. The moment is electrifying because it lulls you into thinking they’re still the quasi lo-fi act you heard on Something About Airplanes, before reminding you that, no: they know what they’re doing.
Eight albums, 18 years, a divorce, and the loss of a founding member later, Gibbard seems to have forgotten to emerge from that buried place. What should be a small nitpick with Thank You for Today, Death Cab for Cutie’s ninth LP, bloomed into the central issue: it just sounds flat. It’s not just Gibbard’s voice, but the entirety of the album. It’s hard not to miss the energy lost by losing founding member and producer Chris Walla, responsible for much of the band’s charm over the last 20 years. That his production wizardry is on full display on an album that came out a week prior to Thank You only serves to underscore how much of the band’s aesthetic was owed to Walla’s presence.
In his absence, the remaining members – bassist Nick Harmer, drummer Jason McGerr, and newcomers Dave Depper (guitar) and Zac Rae (keyboards) – are rendered woefully underutilized and inconsequential. The music and lyrics used to serve each other, but here, they feel like a totally replaceable session band. Few riffs or rhythms really stick, even the ones that feel designed to (see: the forgettable lead single “Gold Rush,” which attempts catchiness but instead creates monotony). In the moment, these songs are passable, but they don’t grab on like they should. Opener “I Dreamt We Spoke Again” and closer “60 & Punk” are arguably the only songs here that actually come close to producing a classically Death Cab for Cutie atmosphere, marrying both Gibbard and his band in ways that justify the band’s longevity.
Returning after his work on Kintsugi (a far more aurally pleasant album than this) is Rich Costey, who made the lack of Walla in the production booth feel less painful. Typically more adept at creating a slick sheen (see: Muse’s Black Holes & Revelations), here Costey renders even the best songs somewhat toothless. “I Dreamt We Spoke Again” should be a perfectly serviceable late-period Death Cab for Cutie number, but Gibbard’s flattened, needlessly processed vocals soften the blow to the point of being nearly forgettable. Some songs sound better than others. “When We Drive” (itself a toothless “Passenger Seat”) rocks a soft ‘80s synthwave-infused melancholia, while the instant classic “60 & Punk” – the album’s best, for the record – uses the washed-out sound to hammer home lyrics about aged, failing rock gods: “There’s nothing elegant in being a drunk/ It’s nothing righteous being 60 and punk.” In some cases, like with “Autumn Love,” Costey manages to make the band sound stadium-ready in a way that helps you totally ignore the fact that Gibbard, once a highly adept lyricist, turned in a song with a chorus like “Oh oh oh oh oh/ This autumn love/ Oh oh oh oh oh/ Is not enough.”
While we’re here, let’s talk about Gibbard as a songwriter. “Title Track,” again, is a great example of what he used to be capable of: “Talking how the group had begun to splinter/ And I can taste your lipstick on the filter/ Lushing with the hallway congregation/ My best judgment signed its resignation.” Once an adept storyteller who managed to weave words in ways that made you mad you didn’t write the lyric first, here Gibbard is downright puerile. His passion for storytelling is maddeningly absent here, content to make banal observations about aging and change “I remember a winter’s night/ We kissed beneath the street lamp light/ Outside our bar near the record store/ That have been condos for a year and more”) rather than write anything of substance. He can still write a funny song – “You Moved Away” is a song about the sting of people moving away, but is aware of how silly it is: “When you moved away/ All of your friends got drunk and one by one begged you to stay/ When you moved away/ They all felt irrationally betrayed” – but more often than not, he just seems uninspired.
If you didn’t know better, the aforementioned “60 & Punk” could feel like the best wink at the camera we could ask for. “There’s nothing funny about just slipping away/ It’s nothing funny how you’re spending your days.” he sings at the start of the song. If you’re a long-time fan of the band, watching how they’ve progressed since “The OC”’s Seth Cohen helped skyrocket them to mega-fame can be a difficult pill to swallow. It’s no coincidence that the similarly lackluster Codes and Keys came from Gibbard trying to not write in a “solely melancholic voice” following his marriage to Zooey Deschanel, while the more interesting Kintsugi followed both his divorce and the announcement of Walla’s departure. While it’s wonderful that the once sorrowful singer is in a great place in his personal life, it has regrettably sapped the life from his band. Pleasure writes fewer good songs – and sadly, in this case, complacency writes barely any good ones at all.