New Death Cab for Cutie album is alternative perfection

Photo courtesy of Atlantic Records

On Aug. 17, Death Cab for Cutie released its ninth studio album since the group first formed in 1997, titled “Thank You for Today.”

The album contains ten tracks and comes in at a runtime of 38 minutes, and perhaps its greatest strength is its consistent quality.

Alternative bands often struggle to find the appropriate balance between material which is varied and non-repetitive but also stylistically and thematically connected enough to form a coherent and listenable album. The result is that bands often release albums with either too much stylistic variation from song to song, resulting in a fractured listening experience, or so little variation that the listening experience is boring
and repetitive.

On “Thank You for Today,” Death Cab for Cutie strike up a perfect balance between the two. No song sounds too much like the last to be interesting and fresh-sounding, but the transitions between tracks remain smooth and natural, never leaving the listener wondering if Spotify has automatically switched him to an entirely different artist.

A great example of this is the dramatic yet smooth transition from the third track on the album, “Gold Rush,” to the fourth, “Your Hurricane,” two songs which feel very different from each other. The texture of the first is dominated by percussion, with the rhythm driven by drums, tambourines and a piano. The latter is much more melodic, with guitar taking center stage and drawn-out vocals replacing the staccato lyrics of the previous track.

The tracks have very different sounds, but the effect is created primarily through mixing; the same instruments are there, they are just weighted differently.

As a result, the listener feels as though he is hearing the same band as before, now with a different member taking up the dominant role. The transition is not jarring, and yet the album gains a sense of variety.

Another demonstration of the album’s consistency is the fact that none of the songs stand head-and-shoulders above the rest. The first track, “I Dreamt We Spoke Again,” is clearly meant to be the most radio-friendly song on the album with its to-the-point tempo and brevity, but it is still not a significant departure from the rest of the album in style or quality.

Every song on “Thank You for Today” feels as though it was produced with the intention of being a single without compromising its sense of artistic honesty.

“Autumn Love,” for instance, has the polished feel of a commercial track and even features a catchy chorus and a radio-friendly tempo.

Still, the song occupies the thoroughly uncommercial sixth slot on the album and feels like a private conversation between the artist and the listener in the way deep cuts typically do.

Virtually every song on the album manages this superb balance between the polished production quality of an early-release single and the sense of uncompromised artistic honesty and freedom typically only found tracks from deeper in the album.

Lead songwriter Ben Gibbard somehow manages to write songs which feel to each listener as though they are written for him without feeling as though they are written for everybody else as well. It is an intangible quality which few songwriters can achieve in their music and it is the defining feature which makes this album so enjoyable to listen to.

The only shortcoming with “Thank You for Today” is that it does not contribute anything truly new to the alternative rock genre. It is an excellent album, but Gibbard clearly was not    looking to innovate with it. This record will not set a new trend for the alternative music industry, nor will it mark a turning point in Death Cab for Cutie’s long existence.

Still, it is apparent that Gibbard is not trying to reinvent himself on the album, and he has no reason to. Death Cab for Cutie are not growing old, they are reaching the peak of their quality as a band.

The lack of innovation in “Thank You for Today” means that the album will never achieve legendary status, but it also reinforces the idea that this is an album which is meant to be listened to. The album is not intended to change music, and the listener will not find himself feeling changed after listening to it.

Still, it is clearly an attempt to perfect alternative rock, and the listener will certainly find himself enjoying music more than he has in a long time.