Essential New Music: Death Cab For Cutie’s “Thank You For Today”

There’s nothing quite like a good Sunday-morning record. Sunday is the day of existential dread, the day of anxiety over lost time. It’s delicate—a wrong turn can send it down to a dark place. A record that can elegantly begin or even guide you through the worst of days is a special one, and they don’t come along as often as you might think.

Thank You For Today is a good Sunday-morning record in that it opens up seriously, but calmly and thoughtfully. It’s bright and patient. It seems to expand time somehow, beautifully carving out a singular sonic space and exploring it from every angle. The ninth record from Death Cab For Cutie is overwhelmingly, perhaps surprisingly, pleasant in a way that the band never has been before. This may lose some people, sure. Thank You For Today doesn’t harbor the same dramatic flair of 2003’s Transatlanticism or 2005’s Plans, but that’s perfectly all right. Thank You For Today is Death Cab’s most level-headed work yet, a slowly rotating prism of shimmering synthesizers and quietly puzzled rhythms. A hazy brightness permeating a thin, cloudy dawn.

While 2015’s Kintsugi was definitively a record of disintegration, Thank You For Today feels seamless and singular. “I Dreamt We Spoke Again” opens the LP with mellow keys and a distant vocal, rising above the surface alongside a gently flurry of deep drums. It slides in and out of focus before gliding easily into the buzzing intro to “Summer Years,” a deliberately nostalgic tune that sounds like a culmination of all of Ben Gibbard’s well-worn songwriting paths. The dream-like quality of the song gives a certain honesty to Gibbard’s wandering mind, resting in the quiet moments on a lost (or never found) love: “And I wonder where you are tonight/If the one you’re with was a compromise/As we’re walking lines in parallel/That will never meet, and it’s just as well.” It’s the same subject matter that Death Cab made its name on, but the trick of this song is that it unearths a different kind of emotion—it’s a strange feeling, not necessarily a sad one, to look back and see all the turns not taken.

The best song on Thank You For Today is “You Moved Away,” which exists in a little world crafted of a constant synthetic whirr, like a steady breeze tentatively moving the track along. “You Moved Away” is a song about solemn, understated change, developed through the kind of storytelling that gave dreary life to 2008’s Narrow Stairs. The difference here is a weight of experience, a confidence on the part of the character in focus. Gibbard sings matter-of-factly, “When you moved away/All of your friends got drunk and one by one begged you to stay/They all felt irrationally betrayed,” but there is no big reaction on the part of the character. It’s not emotionless, but as the whirr turns into a whistle of the wind, it’s clear that the decision has been made. Leaving is no longer the devastation it might have been in Death Cab’s earlier songs—now, it’s just a part of living.

Then there’s “60 And Punk,” a closer that rests on a piano melody that feels slightly askew, telling the story of a washed-up rock-star type unable to give up on the old way of life. It’s a scene that may seem a little didactic, but it also feels self-reflective, letting go of the danger of youth before it swallows you, leaves you lifeless and unexcited—“a superhero growing bored/No one to save anymore.” “60 And Punk” is a song about letting yourself find comfort, letting yourself grow into someone slightly different. The Death Cab For Cutie of Thank You For Today is something slightly different from the Death Cab of the ‘00s, but that’s OK. Gibbard and Co. are letting themselves slip gracefully into wiser versions of themselves, positioning themselves to live through plenty of Sunday mornings to come.

—Jordan Walsh