Mapping Memories: Death Cab for Cutie’s “Thank You For Today” DCFC and Jenny Lewis at Forest Hills Stadium
QUEENS, NY- A silhouette on Dyes Inlet, lit by moonlight. The corner record store turned into a block of luxury condos. Adrift on the open seas, no lighthouse in sight.
A sense of dislocation permeates Death Cab for Cutie‘s ninth studio album, Thank You for Today, which opens with a half-recalled dream (“I Dreamt We Spoke Again”) and moves through shifting skylines (“Gold Rush”) and shoreside rendezvous (“Northern Lights“), pausing at the empty spaces where friends once lived (“You Moved Away”). True to the Seattle rock band’s aesthetic, these songs convey sense of longing through arrangements that are delicate, yet propulsive. Frontman Ben Gibbard may be leading a trip down memory lane, but there’s no time to linger — for better or worse, we’ll drive on, “windows open wide.”
Thank You for Today is Death Cab’s first record made without founding member Chris Walla, who left the band in 2014. (Walla had a dual role as band member and producer, and even after his departure, contributed guitar and electronica to 2015’s Kintsugi.) The latest album shows the band painting outside the lines of their signature moody indie-rock sound with a pop polish and trip-hop beats. Though a sense of nostalgia seeps through, these vignettes are rendered not in sepia tones but in glowing color. While Death Cab’s sonics have shifted through the decades, the center — Gibbard’s distinctive delivery — remains constant. His presence is unassuming yet intense, and his voice gentle enough to offset even the most biting of lyrics (“60 and Punk” excoriates a fallen music hero: there’s nothing elegant in being a drunk), searching through the haze of heartache, enough hopefulness in the roundness of his enunciation to cut through the pathos.
The evening at Forest Hills Stadium opened with the iridescent Jenny Lewis, whose history with Gibbard reaches back to the early aughts collaboration in Postal Service (Gibbard’s electro-pop project with Jimmy Tamborello). Lewis’s crazy-impressive cast of collaborators, which includes Ringo Starr, Don Was, Benmont Tench (one of Petty’s Heartbreakers), and Beck, is testament to her songwriting chops and nuanced (and gorgeous) vocal delivery. One moment, we’re bopping along, nestled within sweetly-insouciant pop that she delivers with a hint of a smirk, eyes shining behind those pink bejeweled sunglasses. The next, she’s knocked us back on our heels with old-school soulful melodies set over old-timey piano arrangements.
I’m thinking in particular of “Taffy.” The plastic Christmas tree in a run-down motel feels like something out of an ill-advised romance, and what millennial doesn’t relate to some version of this scene: I looked through your phone … I am such a coward, how could you send her flowers? And then the kicker — despite the perfidy of our narrator’s lover, she sends those nude selfies anyways: I do not regret it, I knew that you were gone … I did so freely, I wanted you to see me off that throne you put me on. These words cut deep, and are all the more devastating because they’re delivered in honey-hued vocals and the dreamiest swell of strings.
Lewis’s opening set was a full hour, and deservedly so, as she headlines similarly-sized venues. Her setlist drew mostly from On the Line, released earlier this year, and included “Silver Lining,” a Rilo Kiley song (Lewis’s art-pop band). Gliding onto stage in a shimmery ensemble (“this dress controls me,” she later quipped about the mermaid gown), Lewis held up a tennis ball — a nod to the venue’s history. (The “lucky tennis ball” went home with a lucky fan.) Lewis and band, including Emily Elbert and Dylan Day on guitars, Solomon Dorsey on bass, Jason Boesel on drums, as well as a violinist and cellist — opened with “Heads Gonna Roll,” a slowed-down country dance around the push and pull of an ill-matched couple, with the self-rescuing princess declaring that it’s better we stay friends ‘cos after all is said and done, we’ll all be skulls. On the album, the warm distortion of the Hammond B3 bridges the divides that the characters, who argued over everything from Elliott Smith to grenadine, cannot.
Lewis’s charisma — she reminded me simultaneously of Loretta Lynn and Jessica Rabbit (a friend told me, “I can’t decide if I want to be her or marry her”) — will hook you on first encounter. But what reels you in is the apparent care with which she approaches the granular details, both realistic and absurdist, and the splashes of psychedelic color in the folky, funky, and blue-eyed soul aesthetic. For instance, I’ve not heard a pharmaceutical line as delightful as the one she croons in “Do Si Do” (you ain’t no pharaoh, get back on your Paxil) since Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” (MDMA got you feelin’ like a champion, the city never sleeps, better slip you an Ambien).
The pink tambourine, pink mics, and flower-embellished guitar and Wurli, might risk appearing precious, but Lewis owns it all — she’s seen enough to deliver some clear-eyed wisdom and remains sassy enough to keep us hopeful that the next girl-meets-boy storyline might end a bit better.
Changeover was a chance to stroll around the stadium grounds. In addition to the usual cohort of 20- to 30-something year olds, there were young kids and older fans — a little girl perched on her parent’s shoulders; another attendee was helped into his seat by his adult daughter. If certain bands provide the signposts — the albums we associate with a first love, the first time we leave home, the loss of a parent, the birth of a child — then sharing these songs across generations, under the same summer night sky — that’s a sublime thing.
And if it was communion or even catharsis that we came for, Death Cab for Cutie surely delivered. Gibbard might be faulted for being saccharine if he weren’t so damn earnest, with that sandy mop of hair flopping into his eyes, a forever boyish face, equal parts fleet-footed (he runs 100-mile ultras, nbd) and heavy-hearted (“Black Sun” is a caustic breakup song with the prettiest hook). He truly believes every word he sings, and he makes you believe it, too. If millennial discourse is characterized by ironic detachment, the straightforward sincerity in these songs is the counterweight we seek. Death Cab’s songs give shape to the fears and desires that we otherwise hold at arms’ length. And what we seek, sometimes, is to be a little sad together about the impermanence of it all, whether it’s the face of a lover or a hometown.
The latter is the subject of “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive,” which was the launching point for the night. Jason McGerr’s crisp percussion and the bright chimes of keys courtesy Zac Rae, along with Nick Harmer (bass) and Dave Depper (guitars), frame a catchy refrain that had band and audience joining in the return to the scene of the crime (in the music video, Gibbard plays the part of the jaded tour guide leading one of the ubiquitous LA-celeb tours — a commentary on the detachment produced by glossy, shallow interactions). “Ghosts of Beverly Drive” (Kintsugi) is a thematic cousin to “Gold Rush” from the latest album, which appeared mid-set.
“Gold Rush,” which samples Yoko Ono’s “Mindtrain,” is Gibbard’s requiem for a skyline — a sleek critique of the shifting demographics of Seattle, with creative communities and communities of color being pushed out. Speaking about the song to NME, Gibbard referred to “the role that geography plays in our memory.” This is part of the disruption and dislocation that forms a lyrical theme to Thank You for Today, the way in which home becomes unrecognizable and the only thing we know is that we’re born to be in motion.
While “Gold Rush” reflects a restrained experimentation, the encore took us straight back to those teenage days when we first encountered Death Cab’s songs — memories too faded to feel bitter or sweet, but tangible enough to cast a shadow. When Gibbard took the stage again, it was alone, with an acoustic guitar. Caught in the cross-beams of stage lights, he started playing “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” prompting shouts of “yeah, old school!” from the stands. As much as I love the full band production, this was, for me, Gibbard at his best — with just a guitar and that voice saturated with yearning, he made the stadium feel like a private concert. And when thousands of voices joined in for the refrain, Gibbard stepped away from the mic and walked to the edge of the stage, allowing the crowd to take over for a while. It was a reminder of his knack for crafting songs that are wistful without being petulant — a kind of sadness that sparkles.
Jenny Lewis joined Gibbard and his band for a Postal Service cover (“Nothing Better”), and the night closed with “You Are a Tourist” and “Transatlanticism.”
Thank You for Today explores the ways we measure distance in miles and in time. And as Gibbard reflects on the treachery of placing faith in geography to hold our memories, I hope he also remembers another truth: some memories are tethered to places, and others, to songs. We gather around a stage to listen and gaze and sing along, and we reflect on the ways this band soundtracked our days. These, too, are spaces imbued with meaning and memory. It’s why that plaintive line of “Transatlanticisim” will always sound cathartic, not cloying — I need you so much closer. In the space of a song, we can be a little closer — and that counts for something.