Death Cab For Cutie

Atlantic, 2015

REVIEW BY: Melanie Love


In preparation for the first Death Cab For Cutie release in four years (and the last with founding guitarist Chris Walla) I’ve been delving deep into my old favorites from the indie quartet. Death Cab is one of those formational bands for me, discovered and loved just as I was beginning to have an ear for what really spoke to me. Coming back to discs like 2005’s Plans as a 25-year-old graduate student is like cutting across time and space to reconvene with myself as a teenager – I guess that’s what Ben Gibbard would call “Transatlanticism.” These are the tender, sprawling, and epic songs that helped me think about love and distance, and loss, and they’re the songs that travelled with me from Los Angeles to Baltimore to New York City. Because some things change and some things stay the same, these are and continue to be the songs that serve as my soundtrack as I slog through endless research papers.

For Death Cab, too, their eighth album has both signs of growth and some of the well-loved signatures of their sound. Titled Kintsugi, which refers to the Japanese art of taking shards of broken pottery and fusing them together into a new whole, the band seems to be hoping on this release to build the breakage into something beautiful rather than trying to hide the loss. In addition to Walla’s departure during production of the album, Gibbard also split with wife Zooey Deschanel. While he’s adamant that none of his material should be read as a true-life confessional, so much of this disc involves the disillusion of love becoming blotted out by distance, or fame, and the struggle to recapture one’s self. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The first four songs of Kintsugi navigate this tension to great effect. Lead single “No Room In Frame” has a jangling, upbeat spirit even as Gibbard implores, “Was I in your way as the camera turned to face you?” Gibbard is at his best when he’s revealing the sensitive specifics, and when he sighs, “I guess it’s not a failure we could help / And we’ll both go on and be lonely with someone else” over the gorgeous flicker of Walla’s guitars, it’s a striking moment. Meanwhile, “Black Sun” begins inauspiciously but soon builds up to the bracing, electronic bite of the refrain “How could something so fair be so cruel?” Walla’s lacerating guitar solo adds in a flavor of dissolution and repair, or at least the hope for repair.

The one-two punch of “The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive” and “Little Wanderer” are another two standouts. The former is energetic and inspired, while the latter is a spare, haunting ode to long distance. Gibbard imagines himself as “an evergreen” or “the lighthouse” as his love explores the world without him.

There is a fragmented effect to Kintsugi that works well at times, but the record overall seems to be less than the sum of its parts. The first half of the disc is endlessly listenable, and while the second has its high points, there is sometimes more retreading into their back catalogue than there is building on it.

For instance, the stripped-down “Hold No Guns” (especially when paired with the equally somber and acoustic “You’ve Haunted Me All Of My Life”) comes across like a lesser “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.” Meanwhile, closer “Binary Sea” feels like the band needed to tack on a maudlin exploration of archetypes rather than stay close to the personal, and the fuzzed-over “Ingenue” reads as an unsubtle dig at Deschanel and the aesthetic of her band, She & Him. 

Still, the latter half of the disc is worth it if only to see Death Cab attempt a dance-floor excursion on “Everything’s A Ceiling” and “Good Help (Is So Hard To Find).” The latter is slated for single release, and for good reason; it’s determinedly peppy in sound, almost with an ‘80s vibe, but the lyrics are classic Gibbard, scathing and intimate: “You’ll never have to hear the word ‘no’ / If you keep all your friends on the payroll.”

Overall, the Kintsugi experience leaves me somewhat conflicted, but perhaps that’s due to its nature as a breakup album: how do you put the parts back together to create a coherent whole out of the wreckage? You can clearly see the cracks on this disc, but maybe that’s a part of the process of resolution. All I can say is that for its faults, I plan to spin this disc more than I did 2011’s Codes And Keys.

Rating: B

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