It’s hard to think of Death Cab For Cutie without looking back at 'Transatlanticism'. It’s an album that’s taken on something of a mythic quality; a turning point album that transformed a sub-genre of indie rock into something to be name-checked in mainstream popular culture (see: The OC). It’s also an album that Death Cab will, no doubt, be forever defined by.
But the truth is that that Death Cab is long gone; preserved in amber by the melancholic yet sprawling indie rock that inspired a generation. What has replaced it seems to be a band trying to once again bottle that magic; a shadow of its former self. 'Plans' and 'Narrow Stairs' have got the closest, bringing us some of the most iconic songs of that The OC-era, but Ben Gibbard et al have spent the past decade or so trying to rebuild themselves.
It’s led to them getting progressively broader and broader, the intimacy of 'Transatlanticism' lost in an attempt to capture a wider audience. When Chris Walla quit the band before the release of 2015’s 'Kintsugi', who acted as something of a check on Gibbard, it begged the question: why continue? Especially when the forgettable and overly glossy 'Kintsugi' was actually released.
It was a band that felt distant, overly reliant on metaphors that seemed focus-group approved rather than capturing something in a poetically new way. 'Transatlanticism', after all, was coined by Gibbard to mean an incomprehensible gap that was more an emotional than literal distance.
With 'Thank You For Today', the band’s ninth album and the second with Rich Costey on production duties, it sounds the band are finally reintroducing themselves. For the most part, they’ve stopped trying to reach the dizzying highs of 'Transatlanticism' and just tried to have a bit of fun.
The shift is apparent in the fact they’ve gone from choosing to play giant venues like Seattle’s KeyArena to venues like London’s Scala; a very significant reduction in capacity. With the shackles thrown off and the chance to start again, Death Cab almost seem refreshed and renewed. It still sounds like them, because how could it not, but half the album seems a lot more playful than before.
Lead single 'Gold Rush' is so unusually not-Death Cab that it’s quite exciting. Beginning with something like a slide guitar, reminiscent of early Beck, and the chorus of Ben Gibbard’s that accompany him in the background, it’s brighter and more hopeful than anything they’ve ever done before. It’s very much a mainstream pop version of Death Cab, but it’s proof that that can actually work.
'Northern Lights', with its The Cure-esque echoing guitars, and 'You Moved Away' both sound like a band trying to put a new spin on their old formula too. Gibbard’s lyrics may be a little hackneyed at times, almost a parody of that old version of themselves ('mop the floors and fill the cracks / to get your security deposit back'), but their are nuggets of beauty here (in the very same song, Gibbard heart-wrenchingly sings 'when you moved away / I walked past your vacant apartment almost every day').
Tracks like 'Autumn Love' or 'Your Hurricane', however, do feel like they could’ve featured on 'Codes & Keys' and 'Kintsugi'. Utterly forgettable facsimiles of those older glories, with lyrics like 'this autumn love / is not enough'.
Compare that to the song that sits between them both, 'When We Drive', where Gibbard’s ability to paint a gloriously vivid picture is in full force. As guitars shimmer and synths bubble in the background, he sings 'I like the way that your hair tangles, the way your sun tan’s only on one side'. It feels magical, like the days of 'Grapevine Fires', but without the sense they were actively trying to recapture those days.
Death Cab For Cutie are so intrinsically linked to their past that’s it a difficult to separate them from it. And it seems it’s hard for them to distance themselves from it too. But with 'Thank You For Today', it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Through tracks like 'Gold Rush' and opener 'I Dreamt We Spoke Again', it’s clear that Death Cab still have some of that magic in them.