Death Cab for Cutie review, Royal Festival Hall, London: Shimmering with optimism and a new lease on life

While they're spoilt for choice when it comes to a greatest hits set, this warm-up for their new chapter suggests the best could still be to come

Death Cab For Cutie
Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab for Cutie have always felt like a precarious dichotomy; a band whose career is divided by their generation and genre-defining album Transatlanticism. Before Transatlanticism​'s release in 2003, Ben Gibbard and his troupe felt unabashedly twee, with albums like The Photo Album and We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes built around pop hooks, power chords and personal touchstones brought to life with intricate wordplay. If you looked up "early naughties indie band" in the dictionary, you'd see Death Cab for Cutie pictured alongside the definition, smiling politely in flannel shirts.

Transatlanticism changed everything, however. It was a behemoth of a record - proven by the fact it's still the album the band most heavily-lean on in their sets today - which took them from indie darlings championed by obscure music blogs, and made them a mainstream and commercial success; the kind of band characters from The OC would name-drop for cool points. It was an album which sound-tracked first loves, break-ups, second loves, and everything in between. Not even the smartest, most advanced mathematicians in the world would be able to calculate how many millions have cried into their pillows along with the title track's still-heart-wrenching refrain: "I need you so much closer."

Since then, the band have - for want of a much, much better word - matured. Maybe it's because the twee indie rock of their earlier years wouldn't adequately fill the size of the venues they were now required to play due to their burgeoning fan base. Or maybe, like the rest of us - like the few thousands packed in the Royal Festival Hall in London, for their set as part of the Robert Smith-curated Meltdown Festival - maybe they just got older, and maybe their styles of playing and writing changed along with them. Either way, the albums that followed Transatlanticism - although stunningly beautiful, in their moments - never quite packed the same emotional punch of their breakthrough or indeed the ones that came before it. Plans, for example, felt more like a companion to Transatlanticism rather than a record that stood out on its own. And even though the band explored different soundscapes and experimented with their musicality in different ways on Narrow Stairs, Codes and Keys and Kintsugi, they were more of a collection of songs rather than a succinct and complete album, like in their earlier years.

So when Ben Gibbard walks silently onto the Royal Festival Hall stage - for the fourth night of the festival - we're not quite sure which Death Cab for Cutie we're going to get. Opening with a single spotlight on Gibbard, strumming an acoustic guitar for the Plans-era classic 'I Will Follow You into the Dark' - a song that probably ranks somewhere in most fans' top fives - it's clear that this is a Death Cab who aren't messing around.

When the rest of the band join Gibbard on stage, they run through a slew of likewise fan favourites - Narrow Stairs' pulsating jam 'I Will Possess Your Heart' broods through the Royal Festival Hall, while the sudden rush of 'The New Year' hits like a friendly tap on the shoulder from an old friend, and feels just as comforting. 'What Sarah Said' is still absolutely devastating and stuns the Royal Festival Hall into an appreciative, reflective silence, while 'Black Sun' still showcases the band at perhaps their grungiest; all bitter and bile for reasons we really don't need to go into here, but you can always Google if you don't know already. 'Cath...' is still a triumphant and glorious pop moment, while a rare airing of 'Expo 86' is a soaring shot of nostalgia. And then, of course, there's 'Transatlanticism' - the final song of the night. Rarely does a song embody our very reason for being like this one; after all these years, it still infiltrates the very fibre of our being, rattles through our bones and lifts us back to a simpler time. It's irresistible, in so many ways, and is played to perfection after 15 years or so of practice. New tracks aside, at this stage in their career, Death Cab for Cutie have so many songs to cherry pick from to build the foundations of a greatest hits set to rival any of indie rock's elder statesmen.

But Death Cab aren't elder statesmen just yet. In fact, if their London set tells us anything, it's that they have no intention of winding things down just yet. While the band have no problems embracing their past like so many others do - as demonstrated on this night, and by a gig at London's Scala the following night, which managed to draw deeper into their back catalogue to offer something dramatically different but equally excitable than what we got at Meltdown - new tracks like 'Gold Rush' and 'Summer Years' shimmer with optimism, showing the band with seemingly a new lease of life.

This is equally as apparent on stage as it is in their sound - Gibbard and crew seem more confident, more self-assured, and even more playful than they've seemed in years. Not only in their lyrics, but in their performance and the demeanour on stage, too. The songs themselves hark back to the charm from their pre-Transatlanticism days, spliced with the maturity of their musicianship.

When we wondered which Death Cab for Cutie we'd be getting off stage after their time spent writing and recording Thank You for Today - to be released later in the year - we never expected the answer to be "the best of both". While they're spoilt for choice for a greatest hits set already, this warm-up for their next chapter suggests the best could still be yet to come, finally lifting them from the shadow of Transatlanticism.

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