Thank You For Today is a Peaceful Concession to Transience

Julien Baker reflects on Death Cab for Cutie's latest record and the inevitability of change.

It is an oppressively humid morning in Nashville, the Tennessee heat radiating off the concrete so thickly that it seems to slow down traffic. It has only been one week since I moved to the city from my hometown of Memphis, joining the torrent of new residents relocating daily to the state’s magnetic capitol. Nashville’s expanding gravitational field had only pulled me a three-hour drive east, but the distance, however geographically negligible, felt a vast gulf of personal significance. Now, I was trying to graft myself into a patchwork community of other numerous transplants, some fellow musicians or friends, most strangers, all faced with the arduous task of sinking new roots into a place where the ground is constantly being busted up for renovation.

Here, idling on the interstate while highway construction clots cars together, congealing into one massive throng of commuting motorists, I hear “Gold Rush,” a single off of Thank You for Today, for the first time.

With an appropriateness bordering on irony, the music comes wavering from my car stereo, competing with the sound of rattling jackhammers as Gibbard describes demolition crews and light-devouring cranes, a skyline obstructed by condos and parking garages. A bouncing drum groove and percussive guitar rhythm make the track far from a dirge, but somehow it sounds to me like a song of mourning, more woeful than joyous. Subtly filtered vocals relay a personal transmission reporting the unstoppable change of a beloved community. Beneath a descending progression and falling melody, a buried chant of “gold rush” gives way into a softly crooned petition: “Please don’t change.”

Despite being assured that the change will benefit the greater good, the song’s speaker is shrewdly aware that progress, or what is perceived as progress, often means effacement and erasure, and has begun preparing himself for a long goodbye not only to the past, but to the physical structures that provided a backdrop to his personal history. This is an all too familiar lament, and in my new municipal milieu, one that feels incessantly debated. It is a worry frequently discussed in the practical terms of gentrification, gripes with corporate development, economic disparity, and housing inequity, but that resonates in a deeper, more fundamentally emotional sense.

As agents of industry and globalization are permitted to alter the physical attributes of our world and its infrastructure, they also begin reverse engineering a culture reflected in that alteration, reshaping the very framework of our lives. Shifts that destabilize and restructure our communities remind us the temporariness of every other part of our lives, make us question whether the uniformly craved sense of belonging may only ever be partial. I think of myself as intrinsically connected to the place I call home, and like many Memphians, my relationship to my hometown is a turbulent but fiercely loyal one. But homes change, whether because we relocate to establish a new version of home, or because we stay to watch the atrophy of the old as it is overtaken by the growth of the new. To see my home change is to watch the metamorphosis of my own identity, to see the rift form between where I am from and who I am, two things that once were integral to each other.

The chorus encapsulates this sensation of slow severance, addressing both the personified idea of a once-loved city, and the fragments of memory contained within it in the heartbreaking remark that “it seems I never stop losing you.” There is constancy in the loss here; it does not happen in a single decisive moment, but is something continually felt as we move through life adapting to new absence.

“Gold Rush” is an exploration of that loss, a conversation grieving the disappearance of old bars and record stores now replaced by ubiquitous sterile condos, punctuated with the statement that it didn’t used to be this way. It seems at once honest and facetious, a phrase circulated ad nauseam by die-hard fans, or veteran locals, or anyone who has loved anything long enough to experience its inevitable change—a town, a band, a person—and found themselves reminiscing about the way things were. When Gibbard admits to having “ascribed these monuments with a false sense of permanence,” we get the impression that this despite being a warranted reaction, the adage “it didn’t used to be this way,” is spoken with some duplicity, an expression of sadness and a chastisement for having assigned impossible permanence to the transient.

This is the uniquely perceptive quality of Death Cab for Cutie’s music, the ability to portray ordinary events so vividly that they become tangible, rife with simultaneous and contradictory feelings. Gibbard’s storytelling captures the realistic, human complexity of events by offering us snapshots of people in flux: people defeatedly tossing an old mattress into the alley after a break-up, wandering a defunct amusement park at night, discovering photos from a bygone romance in their glove box while being pulled over,  anxiously awaiting updates about a loved one in a hospital waiting room. These sketches of life show us characters who are torn, residing in the precise moment of fissure between before and after, between here and there.

These moments of disorientation are used throughout the band’s catalog to assess and re-evaluate the nature of identity and belonging. Tracks like “Why You’d Want to Live Here” and “You Are a Tourist” feel like pieces of an ongoing deliberation of staying versus leaving, while “Little Wanderer” and “Transatlanticism” grapple with the challenges of sustaining emotional proximity through physical remoteness.

Thank You For Today follows in this lineage of unbelonging, navigating the topography of change, loss, and separation with newly refined perspective. Themes of displacement recur as we are presented with observations of people traversing both figurative and literal distance, either straddling the divide of past and present, attempting to reconcile one with the other, or standing on the precipice of the future,  hesitating for one moment of nostalgic reflection before their embarkation.

“You Moved Away,” narrates the practical minutiae that precedes moving to reveal the profound hurt of a friend’s departure through even the most perfunctory completion of tasks, the solemn checking of tires, selling of records. Still, the words disclose more sorrow than spite, no longer downright questioning why a person would want to live somewhere else, but observing with regret, even acknowledging that the betrayal felt by the person moving was somewhat irrational.

The anthemic “Autumn Love,” recalls the imagery of “Little Wanderer,” redacting a pledge to be an anchored lighthouse for another, and aims to “break the shackles of direction. With no deceptive lighthouse or guiding beacon, Gibbard relegates control headlights and the highway, trusting the brokenness to be held together by the momentum of forward motion. “When We Drive,” is likewise a sweeping ode to travel that eschews a search for the absolute and embraces the present. The kinetic environment of driving mimics the mixed liberation and unpredictability of a life in transit, reminiscent of Transatlanticism’s “Passenger Seat,”  which finds the song’s characters in a momentary respite at the liminal space between destinations.

Thank You For Today is also as much a lyrical depiction of one’s position in time as a sonic exhibition of the band’s stylistic maturation. The record achieves a mastery of the simple, opts for frankness rather than obscurity. Candid, uncontrived lyrics are phrased in straightforward quatrains and couplets, powerful but deliberate vocals mix with stark leads and ethereal synths,  forming the tastefully uncomplicated arrangement of songs like “Your Hurricane,” and “I Dreamt We Spoke Again.”

“Summer Years” features the band’s signature pairing of an intricate, moving bass line with complex percussion, but employs this instrumentation with artful restraint. The galloping drums maintain a tension that never fully gives way, forgoing a typical climax in favor of an instrumental crescendo like an uncrested wave, swelling with ominous, concealed intensity but never breaking. Fittingly, the song reflects upon the unresolved ends of the past, considering the infinite alternate trajectories of our lives and indulging in a universally shared wonder of what might have been before accepting with resoluteness that there can be no doubling back.

This sentiment is revisited on “60 & Punk,” the record’s final track. In a searing caricature of a living anachronism, Gibbard details the schism of past and present through the de-idealization of a role model who, now content to stagnate in the remnants of a bygone era, represents the flaws and cracks we eventually, painfully must recognize in our past. The song feels caustic yet sympathetic, reproaches the martyrdom of never acquiescing to the future in order not to sell out with the chilling indictment, “Were you happier when you were poor?”.

Often the observations that come from those closest to us are the most cutting, but also the most meaningful. This album is a collection of these observations, an appraisal of both the past and future from the vantage of one trying to inhabit the present, full of brutal honesty tenderly issued, as if from one lost friend to another. The songs offers us illustrations modernity overtaking antiquity as parallels our individual movement through time, mirroring the endless transformations of our personal relationships in the perpetual evolution of our world. For all its exploration of former and latter things, Thank You For Today is an ultimate, peaceful concession to transience, an endeavor to appreciate one’s current moment when so much of thinking is either a rumination mired the past or an anxious contemplation of the future. It is a requiem for something lost, but it is also a benediction, sending us cautiously but graciously forth as we are ushered every moment into a new present where we must negotiate our place in the gap between what was and what is.

Memphis, Tennessee’s Julien Baker released her sophomore record, Turn Out The Lights, via Matador Records in 2017. Follow her on Twitter here and Instagram here.

(photo credit: Nolan Knight)