Summer was over, and the mid-October chill cast a melancholy pall over our fair city. As midterms loomed, the college students of Boston were in desperate need of a study break, yet they also craved emotional support from someone who not only understood their romantic and existential ennui but could articulate it better than they ever could. It was time, in other words, for a Death Cab for Cutie concert.
Before Ben Gibbard & Sons took The Wang Theatre stage Sunday night (October 14) for the first of two shows, the candy-coated power-pop of Charly Bliss functioned as the musical equivalent of a SAD lamp. The young Brooklyn band has been touring behind their great debut album Guppy pretty much since its early-’17 release, and at this point they’ve got these songs so thoroughly down that, even with the bassist filling in for the lead guitarist and the guy who made the music videos filling in for the bassist, they didn’t miss a step. Mixed in with the Guppy highlights were two new songs; recent single “Heaven” was a swoony waltz that recalled The Breeders at their dreamiest, while an unreleased song took Charly Bliss’ hooky, fuzzed-out sound in a slightly moodier direction. Throughout, singer/guitarist Eva Hendricks’ enthusiastic pogoing, along with the arms-aloft gusto with which she shouted her stage patter, kept spirits high.
With Thank You for Today, the first album Death Cab for Cutie have recorded since the 2014 departure of Chris Walla and his subsequent replacement with two guitarist/keyboardists, the band has retained their brooding, melodic identity while continuing to move in a slicker, more alternative radio-friendly direction.
Their Sunday evening show began with two songs from the new record, and while the tunes were pleasant enough, everything from the cryptic visuals on the big screen to the accomplished yet anonymous playing of Gibbard’s bandmates felt a bit impersonal, which for a group this famously heart-on-sleeve is a worrying development. That feeling dissipated two songs later with the first familiar notes of “Long Division,” and as the 24-song set list progressed with a relatively even balance of classics from Death Cab’s first decade and more recent cuts, the lush new material ended up effectively complementing the stripped-down wiriness of indie-rockers like “Title and Registration” and “Company Calls.” On a more fundamental level, Ben Gibbard’s voice is just really, really nice to listen to, regardless of what he’s singing, and that turned out to be as true live as on record.
No one goes to see Death Cab for Cutie hoping with fingers crossed that this is the show where they finally cut loose and jam, but the band did get a few chances to shine. Jason McGerr’s buoyant drumming pushed the piano-rocker “What Sarah Said” skyward, making the potentially overwrought refrain “so who’s gonna watch you die?” feel surprisingly uplifting. The extended intros to “I Will Possess Your Heart” and “Doors Unlocked and Upon” offered some of the night’s biggest thrills; Death Cab may have been mocked for claiming the influence of Can, but when they locked into a good motorik, it sure sounded like they’d learned a thing or two from their krautrock records. Moments like these helped energize the previously muted sold-out crowd, who were singing and cheering loudly by the time fan favorites “Soul Meets Body” and “The Sound of Settling” triumphantly closed the main set.
When Gibbard returned to the stage alone with an acoustic guitar, everyone knew exactly what he was about to sing. Yes, it was time for “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” and though the years may have turned it into a dorm-room cliché, hearing a theater full of fans quietly echo every word of Gibbard’s timeless melody was the sort of transcendent experience only live music can offer.
After that, the band returning to play “When We Drive” and “Tiny Vessels” felt a touch anticlimactic, treading water where, say, “A Movie Script Ending” or “Marching Bands of Manhattan” might have taken things to the next level. It was all a prelude, however, for the sweeping melodrama of “Transatlanticism,” the grandest lovelorn epic in a discography full of them. The way that song patiently builds to a heart-swelling crescendo, then fades out just when it seems about to reach its peak, will always pack an emotional punch, and it’s hard to imagine a great Death Cab for Cutie show ending any other way.
Follow Terence Cawley on Twitter @terence_cawley.