In the 20 years since Death Cab for Cutie made their debut with 1998’s Something About Airplanes, the band has had their ups and downs: indie cred that built to mainstream success, followed by a couple of lackluster albums with dwindling sales and, most recently, the departure of a core member. With the release of their ninth album, Thank You for Today, the band attempts to get back some of the mojo that made Ben Gibbard and company indie icons to begin with—but can they recapture the magic?
Unfortunately for band and listener alike, Thank You for Today is a pretty vanilla album (and not even the good kind with flecks of vanilla bean in it), lacking almost any of the spark or creativity that made albums like Transatlanticism, Plans, We Have the Facts and Narrow Stairs the critical and commercial hits they were. TYFT opener I Dreamt We Spoke Again is a vapid, mid-tempo number that turns out to be a good indicator of what much of the album holds in store. In fact, without Gibbard’s signature vocals, the music would’ve sounded much like almost any indie rock out now, replete with clean guitars and breezy (over)production. It appears that the departure of longtime guitarist, songwriter, and producer Chris Walla (this is the first album he has not played on, and the second he didn’t produce) has left Ben and the band searching for direction and in such they seem to be playing it quite safe.
Still, even when embroiled in what by most indications appears to be a bit of a creative slump, Gibbard is still capable of a good song or two. Summer Years is a clear standout, with a snappier tempo and more focused guitar work that calls to mind some of the stronger cuts from albums past, and closing track 60 & Punk finds Gibbard (with his vocals dryer and less messed around with) singing a piano-centric ballad about a musician aging ungracefully, who he compares to “a superhero growing bored with no one to save anymore”. It’s not hard to wonder if sometimes he thinks of himself the same way.