‘Transatlanticism’ vs. ‘Thank You For Today’: Which Death Cab For Cutie Album Is Better?
Which album comes out on top?
Twenty years ago, Ben Gibbard’s college dorm-room solo project officially turned into a band with Something About Airplanes, the debut studio album from Death Cab for Cutie. A decade later, the band would score their first-ever number-one album with their sixth album, Narrow Stairs.
Cut to the present day, and the band have a cemented legacy among the greats of 21st-century indie-rock and maintain a cross-generational audience that still sells out their shows globally.
Last month, the band released their ninth LP — Thank You for Today — to the warm reception of fans and critics alike. Indeed, it’s already being regarded as one of the band’s best records in years — but before we get too carried away, let’s cast our minds back to the summer of 2003.
With a brand-new drummer in tow and a new lease on life, Death Cab quietly released their fourth album, Transatlanticism. At the time, the band had just made their maiden voyage to Australia, opening for Something For Kate on a national tour.
Few could have predicted what would follow — with the assistance of The O.C. and a slew of unexpected media attention, Transatlanticism would set Death Cab for Cutie on their path to stardom.
So, with that in mind, how does Thank You for Today fare in comparison to the 15-year-old Transatlanticism? Let’s get sad and have a think about it.
Transatlanticism is the first Death Cab album to feature what is now regarded as the band’s classic line-up, which would go on to make the next four albums together. Founding member Ben Gibbard on vocals, guitar and keyboards is joined by long-serving members Chris Walla (guitar, keyboards) and Nick Harmer (bass), as well as new drummer Jason McGerr.
Ironically enough, McGerr had previously been brought in as a replacement drummer in Harmer’s old band Eureka Park — and the drummer he replaced was none other than Gibbard, who had left to focus on his band Pinwheel and later on his solo project with the working name of Death Cab for Cutie. Time is a flat circle, folks.
From Something About Aeroplanes onwards, Chris Walla also served as the band’s producer. He would be behind the boards for every Death Cab release until Kintsugi in 2015, which also served as his final album with the band.
For all intents and purposes, ‘The New Year’ is a recalibration of the Death Cab sound. While still holding the keen eye for melody and bright guitars that had been such a part of the previous three Death Cab albums, there’s also a much wider sound and loftier ambitions abound.
Part of that is to do with Chris Walla truly coming into his own as a producer, making space for nuance and ambience in the arrangements; and also partly to do with the incredibly inventive drumming from McGerr — as far as first impressions go, it doesn’t get much stronger than a jazzy flourish of dizzying time signature changes that still manage to hold up Gibbard’s lyrical narrative.
As luck would have it, ‘The New Year’ is also the first thing that you hear on Transatlanticism. The sound of distant traffic and city noise serves as the distinctive introduction to the record, which eventually find their way into shimmering guitar feedback and the unmistakable one-two hit that serves as the song’s recurring motif.
At this stage in Death Cab’s career, it’s about as grandiose as they’ve gotten — and 15 years on, it still holds true as one of the most beloved moments in their entire body of work.
It’s stripped right back to Gibbard and Walla by the time ‘A Lack of Color’ rolls around — the former singing and playing acoustic guitar, the latter adding sparse piano.
The album ends not with a bang, but with a whimper — which, really, is probably the right way to go about things when you’re a band like Death Cab. A solemn, stark and confessional number that opines for a lost love in only the way a songwriter like Gibbard can, ‘A Lack of Color’ is often cited as a favourite deep-cut among fans. It’s easy to see why — although simple in execution, its words strike the heartstrings at just the right spot.
A good half of Transatlanticism has been a staple of Death Cab’s live shows since its release, and it’s easy to understand why if you’ve spent any time with the album over the years.
Take ‘Title and Registration,’ which bustles and bounces against an electronic backbeat while Gibbard turns a head-scratching opening line (“The glove compartment/is inaccurately named”) into a quietly devastating story about recovering memories from the past better left alone.
The album ends not with a bang, but with a whimper — which, really, is probably the right way to go about things when you’re a band like Death Cab.
There’s also the brisk, paradoxically-triumphant single ‘The Sound of Settling,’ again pitting Gibbard’s anxiety-wrought lyricism with major-key resilience to great effect.
Perhaps the key talking point of the album, however, remains its title track. It’s closed out nearly every Death Cab performance since it came out, and it has every right to lay claim to the title of their finest composition. It plays on tension and release, allowing every last chord to sink in before it dissipates entirely.
Walla’s production pits the listener at both the metaphorical and literal depths, with each layer to the arrangement bringing you closer to the surface. By the time you’re there, unleashing the most primitive and cathartic “COME ON” this side of a stadium rock show, the payoff is overwhelming. The band had never written a song quite like it before — and haven’t since, for that matter.
Juxtaposed with the breathy intimacy of its predecessor, The Photo Album, the nature of Transatlanticism is considerably more vast. One could easily consider it the standard-bearer for their sonic palette going forward, putting emphasis on swelling guitars and pounding drums across every song’s peaks and valleys.
McGerr’s jazzy background plays into tracks like ‘Death of an Interior Decorator’ and ‘We Looked Like Giants,’ playing off askew accentuation and distinctive snare patterns. Meanwhile, bassist Nick Harmer explores the greater reaches of his playing on ‘Tiny Vessels,’ and Walla expertly layers guitars and piano atop of the dynamic power-pop of ‘Expo 86.’
You’re inherently compelled by the conviction with which every line is written and subsequently delivered.
As for Gibbard, he’s grown more and more comfortable with his own voice — both quite literally as a singer and furthermore as a songwriter. On the note of the former, it’s worth noting that Gibbard had previously shrouded his voice in things like distortion (‘Amputations’) and cavernous reverb (‘The Employment Pages’) to make it blend more into the scenery of the songs.
On Transatlanticism, he’s about as forthright and direct as you can get — again, both as a singer and as a songwriter. Vulnerability and fragility is nothing new to the band — they’re four albums deep at this point, after all — but there’s something in the execution that puts Transatlanticism even further across the line than any of their three previous records.
You’re inherently compelled by the conviction with which every line is written and subsequently delivered — and, truth be told, there’s not a whole lot of records you can say that about.
Thank You for Today (2018)
With Walla exiting the fold at the completion of 2015’s Kintsugi, Thank You for Today is the band’s first album without him.
For the subsequent tour of Kintsugi, the remaining trio were joined by two new multi-instrumentalists: Dave Depper on lead guitar, keyboards and backing vocals and Zac Rae on piano, keyboards and occasional guitar.
Following the end of the tour in 2016, both were officially added to the band as full-time members. Subsequently, Thank You for Today is also Death Cab for Cutie’s first album as a quintet.
Kintsugi saw the band work with an outside producer for the first time in their entire career in the form of Rich Costey. The renowned producer, engineer and mixer has had a hand in some of the finest moments in indie rock over the last 20-plus years — Fiona Apple, Muse, Bloc Party, TV on the Radio and CHVRCHES are naming just some of the acts he’s worked with.
Thank You for Today marks the band’s second record with him at the helm.
‘Gold Rush’ is a fascinating Death Cab single, as there is no real comparison point with any other track in the band’s canon. It rides the groove of an obscure Yoko Ono sample, sees Gibbard return to filtered megaphone vocals and makes generous use of its title phrase as some sort of mantra-like chant across the majority of the song.
Essentially, it’s a Death Cab for Cutie song that could only come at this exact point in their career — especially considering its lyrical content is unwavering in its nostalgia. Gibbard turns in his own ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ as he mourns the high-rise construction that has transformed his home of the last 20 years, Capitol Hill in Seattle.
There’s a lot of moving parts that make the song what it is — and, admittedly, a lot of that is inaccessible on a first listen. Given a few further spins, however, the broader scope of the track can be appreciated — especially within the confines of Thank You’s tracklist.
Rather than the grandiose procession of ‘The New Year’ or ‘Marching Bands of Manhattan,’ ‘I Dreamt We Spoke Again’ is instead a focused slow-burner that unassumingly brings you into the album. Anchored by warm, warbling organ and a tight McGerr groove, the song uses minimal flourish in its layering and instead focuses on a steady musical build.
Essentially, ‘Gold Rush’ is a Death Cab for Cutie song that could only come at this exact point in their career.
The payoff comes with a gorgeous refrain, in which Depper is really allowed to show off his vocal harmony work as a foil to Gibbard.
In fact, the song can be seen as a total testament to Depper and Rae’s contributions to the record as a whole — the former’s distinct guitar break and the latter’s atmospheric keys ensure the mood is well and truly set for the rest of the album.
If ‘Gold Rush’ is Gibbard’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi,’ then ’60 and Punk’ is his ‘You’re So Vain.’ It’s an insanely-specific story and a damning portrait of someone that the songwriter has flat-out refused to name. Much like ‘Vain,’ it’s easy to get lost in conspiracy theories and little details that might give away the full story.
By that same token, however, one can also simply enjoy the song for what it is. In this case, it’s a sorrowful bar-room waltz that once again strips the band back to its bare essentials and completes the arc that ‘I Dreamt We Spoke Again’ started.
The sombre piano and restrained drumming alone paint a detailed enough picture without Gibbard’s words atop of them. Combined, you’re able to envision the entire spectrum — and that’s a testament to everyone involved.
Thank You for Today works best when the newly-christened five-piece are all on the same page and working towards something greater than the sum of their parts.
That could be a tightly-wound rocker like ‘Summer Years’ or ‘Northern Lights’ — the latter of which features CHVRCHES’ Lauren Mayberry on backing vocals — or it could also be forlorn balladry like on ‘Your Hurricane’ or the devastating ‘When You Moved.’
The lowlights of the last few Death Cab albums have always come when the songs feel inconsequential and don’t resolve within their runtime. For the most part, Thank You for Today thrives on a new sense of purpose — that there is still a story to be told as far as Death Cab for Cutie are concerned.
One of the more curious aspects of Thank You for Today is the sonic throwbacks — intentional or no — to certain Death Cab classics. The brisk tempo and glistening guitar of ‘Summer Years,’ for instance, bares a few key similarities to The Photo Album’s ‘We Laugh Indoors.’ Later, McGerr’s rhythmic pacing on ‘Your Hurricane’ bares more than a passing resemblance to his performance on ‘Cath…’ from 2005’s Plans — not least of all for the gasping hi-hats that arrive at more or less the exact same point of the measure.
Thank You for Today works best when the newly-christened five-piece are all on the same page and working towards something greater than the sum of their parts
Rather than serve as detrimental to the album, however, they instead boost these songs — they feel like spiritual successors of sorts, and long-serving fans will appreciate the interconnectivity that’s woven across their body of work.
Much has already been made of Rich Costey’s approach to production, and by proxy how it differs to that of Walla’s. One might already consider this a moot point, given no-one could properly replace a presence such as his, but it’s worth noting that Costey’s background in the brighter corners of rock mean that there’s a gloss and sheen to Thank You for Today.
For those that have been indoctrinated to Death Cab in later albums like Narrow Stairs and Codes & Keys, this isn’t a major stretch — there’s warmth, atmosphere and touches of ambience when the moment calls for it. For earlier fans, however, there may understandably be a discomfort in hearing such a slick musical aesthetic from a band that often thrived on drawing outside of the lines, particularly on records like We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes.
With any luck, listeners will be able to find some sort of compromise while taking in Thank You for Today from a sonic perspective.
The Final Verdict
Credit where credit’s due, Thank You for Today is an impressive album — it’s definitely the best album they’ve done since at least Narrow Stairs, and those that may have gone off the band in recent years may well find themselves drawn back in.
Even so, Thank You for Today is not the better Death Cab for Cutie album. It’s not the essential listen. It’s not the one that immediately springs to mind when recommending a first album to listen to for newcomers.
That honour has gone to Transatlanticism for 15 years now, and that isn’t changing any time soon.
David James Young is a writer, podcaster and Death Cab for Cutie completionist. Tweet him about your favourite deep-cut Death Cab song: @DJYwrites.