For thousands of side-fringed, plaid-shirted young teens, the songwriting duo of Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla was akin to a second set of parents. Between them and their Death Cab For Cutie bandmates, they soundtracked heartbreak and hormones throughout the late ’90s and noughties, drafting up the indie-rock rulebook in the process. Walla’s 2014 departure, then, had all the emotional heft of a drawn-out divorce – fitting, really, given Death Cab’s last record, 2015’s ‘Kintsugi’, came loaded with the catharsis of Gibbard’s own real-life marital break-up. It was a seismic event in Death Cab for Cutie’s own lore, too – the dissolution of a pair-up that had carried them for 17 years.
‘Thank You For Today’ represents Death Cab’s most drastic sonic shake-up in a decade, if not ever. Where 2008’s ‘Narrow Stairs’ saw them quickly morph into a twisted, at times post-punk-influenced new guise, epitomised by sprawling, Can-esque tracks such as the ominous ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’, their latest is more of a behind-the-scenes reshuffle, with Walla replaced by Oregon songwriter and solo artist Dave Depper.
It’s a pairing that, on paper, makes sense, given that Depper’s talents with a synthesiser leave ‘Thank You for Today’ feeling like a more polished version of 2011’s ‘Codes & Keys’. Yet the wide-eyed freshness of that new songwriting pairing leaves things feeling a little too shiny.
Lead single ‘Gold Rush’ – a chiming, Beck-inspired lament at the gentrification of Seattle – was a suitable introduction to this new Death Cab universe. Bells, whistles and backing-vocals galore beef up the sound, but without any of the guts and gristle that once made Death Cab such an intoxicating prospect. The likes of ‘Autumn Love’ and ‘When We Drive’ suffer a similar fate – gentle electronics and guitar lines wish-wash their way through lyrical clichés, afraid to sink their teeth into the emotional minutiae of modern love, or thrash out the feelings that digging deeper could muster.
The warbling, pitch-shifted piano of closer ’60 & Punk’ goes some way to making Gibbard’s old-timey storytelling feel as vicious as his very best. And at his best, Gibbard’s works tread the fine line between a Hollywood smile and a barely-disguise snarl – throughout ‘Thank You For Today’, it tends to come off more like a nervous smirk, the musician seemingly still finding his feet alongside his new writing partner.
“There’s nothing righteous in being 60 and a punk,” Gibbard asserts on that closing track. It’s hard to argue with his meditations on the life of an ageing musician, but on ‘Thank You For Today’, it feels a little like Death Cab Mk. 2 are settling into slippers before their time is truly called. As an introduction to a brave – and surely daunting – new era for Death Cab For Cutie, ‘Thank You For Today’ serves its purpose. If they can keep unpacking the talents of that new central songwriting duo, and fray the edges of their glimmering new guise, there’s no reason to rule out another 17 years of indie-rock excellence.