We lost Aretha Franklin this week.
I certainly hope you don’t need me to tell you why this is important, why Franklin’s departure leaves an unfillable hole in the world. She was perhaps the greatest singer who ever lived. At the very least, any conversation about the greatest singers who ever lived that does not mention Aretha Franklin is woefully incomplete. She was certainly one of the best gospel singers ever, and her move to soul and pop music in the 1960s and 1970s was impeccable. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and deservedly so. There was never anyone like her, and there will never be anyone else like her.
I’m not going to be able to properly eulogize someone whose career spanned six decades and whose voice redefined much of what we know as popular music. Franklin was 76 years old when she died after a short illness, and was only four years removed from her last album, on which she sings songs made famous by female performers, and nails them. At 72. Aretha Franklin was the embodiment of legendary, just one of the finest singers this species has ever produced. Rest in peace, Aretha. Thank you doesn’t even begin to cover it.
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A few weeks ago, I pulled out Death Cab for Cutie’s 2005 album Plans, just to see if I still love it.
Short answer: I do. Plans is my favorite Death Cab album, which I know is an unpopular opinion. But I think it’s the one on which their yearning indie-rock sound transitioned most effectively into the more ambitious work we were all expecting from them on a major label. Plans is essentially a sonic novel about death and loss, a melancholy painting across a wide canvas, and I don’t think Ben Gibbard has ever stepped up with a better set of lyrics.
I’ve been hard on the band’s post-Plans work, and I don’t know if all of my disappointment has been warranted. I can say nice things about most of the follow-ups. Narrow Stairs is a great collection of short stories, even if in retrospect it was the start of the spiral. Codes and Keys is an inconsistent jump into more of an electronic sound, but there are some gems. Only Kintsugi stands out to me as a waste, a trifle of a record that contains very little I have grown to care about. And as it was the last album with Chris Walla on guitars and behind the recording desk, I couldn’t imagine that Death Cab would even continue, let alone make something worth listening to again.
It would be difficult for me to say that their ninth album, Thank You For Today, is the turnaround they needed. But it is certainly better than Kintsugi, and better than I expected by a long, long way. To be clear, this is the furthest Death Cab have sounded from their more rock-oriented origins, and the album is a slow burner, indebted more to the Cure than just about anyone else. But far from a last gasp, this feels like a right turn, the beginning of a new era. Unlike the protagonists of most of these songs, I’m hopeful.
It does take a few listens to hear it that way, though. The first half of Thank You For Today is low-key and repetitive, and I can really hear the Cure in numbers like “Summer Years,” which spin a web of clean guitars over insistent drums. “Gold Rush” is here, and it’s grown on me, but it doesn’t end up doing very much over its four minutes. I do like the sound – the slide guitars and thump-thump drum beat are new for Death Cab – but the song kind of jogs in place. The most immediate thing on the first half for me is “Your Hurricane,” a classic Gibbard tale of caring about someone too much. But even this sinks into the mood piece that is the first five songs, and if you don’t see it as a mood piece from the start, you’ll probably find it a little boring.
Things pick up significantly with tracks six and seven, two of the most convincing Death Cab pop-rock songs in years. “Autumn Love,” all by itself, justifies this album’s existence for me. The melody here is exactly the breath of fresh air I’d been waiting for, exactly the shot in the arm the record needed at exactly this point. (There’s no denying the value of a good “whoa-oh,” too.) “Northern Lights” is even better, folding a guest appearance by Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches into a deep, dark pop tune. I still think it all sounds like the Cure, but this one feels more like “In Between Days.” It’s my favorite Death Cab song for at least three albums.
These two songs give a purpose to the rest of the record – the first five tracks build up to “Autumn Love,” and the final three come down from that high. And oddly, they put you in the right frame of mind to shudder and sigh at the last act – it’s all wistful and melancholy stuff. I’m a big fan of “Near/Far,” with its pulsing acoustic guitars, and the finale, “60 and Punk,” isn’t nearly as funny as its title. It’s a piano-led lament about growing old and irrelevant. Gibbard gets a lot of emotion into the line “the band plays you off,” and if this finally ends up being the last bow of Death Cab for Cutie, it will be a thematically resonant way to go out.
But I don’t think it will be.Thank You for Today feels like hitting the refresh button. Not exactly like starting over, but like beginning a new chapter. It’s a downbeat album, for sure, but somehow it breathes new life into a band I was ready to write off. Songs like “Your Hurricane” and “Northern Lights” are all the evidence I need that my life would be poorer without Death Cab for Cutie in it, and I hope this is the start of a grand third act.
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This is my 900th Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. column. I’m in disbelief about that as well. In a few weeks I will finish up my 18th year writing this thing on a (mostly) weekly basis. I hope it is still enriching your life.
I don’t have anything special planned for the 900th. I think just putting out yet another music column, particulary one as average as this one, is a good enough statement of purpose. I’m gonna keep plugging away at this, and I hope you all keep reading it. I can’t thank you enough for continuing on this journey with me.
Next week, no idea, honestly. Freedom! Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.