Album Review: Death Cab For Cutie, ‘Kintsugi’
If you’re wondering if Ben Gibbard makes any allusions to his breakup with ex-wife Zooey Deschanel anywhere on Death Cab For Cutie’s eighth album, Kintsugi, you don’t have to wait long for an answer.
During the first chorus of the first song, “No Room in Frame,” Gibbard paints a vivid picture of what it must’ve been like to be on the red carpet as the New Girl’s “rocker” husband. When Gibbard asks, “Was I in your way when the cameras turned to face you?,” it’s difficult to imagine he’s talking about anyone else. On one hand, it’s good to know he’s writing what he knows. On the other, it’s a little like being trapped inside a car with a bickering couple – which gets less and less fun with each personal jab until you eventually pretend to get a phone call.
Kintsugi is an unabashed break-up album forever destined to be included on future lists like this one -- and that isn’t all that surprising from a band who made heartache sound like something everyone should try with 2003’s Transatlanticism. But the fact that we can so easily imagine such a recognizable face as the subject of most of the songs here makes the themes on Kintsugi feel slightly less universal. Of course, that might change once Gibbard and Deschanel’s romance becomes ancient history. Not all of us can relate to the pain Gibbard feels while driving around Beverly Hills (which he references literally in “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive”), but if you can manage to mentally swap out the landscape of billion dollar houses with scenery from your own memories, you’ll find it a little easier to empathize.
That’s not the only prominent breakup that played an inherent role in the creation of Kintsugi (titled for the Japanese art of using precious metals like gold and silver to rebuild cracked or broken ceramics). Guitarist Chris Walla revealed after the recording of the album that it would be his last with the band, and Kintsugi is the first Death Cab release he didn't produce. Instead, Rich Costey (Muse, Foster the People) helmed the record, lending the 11 songs a certain arena-ready aesthetic.
While Walla delved into electronics with 2008's Narrow Stairs and 2011's Codes and Keys, it was in an effort to expand Death Cab's sonic boundaries a la Radiohead. Costey, however, uses scattered synthetic elements to add a glossy sheen to relatively muted and nuanced songs, making the album feel larger than its decidedly introspective and personal undertones. The results are largely uneven, however, as songs like the disco-esque "Good Help (Is So Hard to Find)" or the '80s soft-rocking "Everything's a Ceiling" feel almost jarring when juxtaposed against the sparse acoustic pining of "Hold No Guns."
But the centerpiece of Kintsugi isn't the aural textures or occasionally odd instrumentation ("The Ghosts of Beverly Drive" could almost be a Cure song at times with its New Wave influence and jangly guitar). It's Gibbard's lovelorn lyricism and fragile melodies that make Death Cab who they've always been: indie rock's upbeat ambassadors to the broken-hearted. Gibbard is no starry eyed kid anymore, but his maturation from idealism to realism isn't quite complete. He sounds downright juvenile on songs like "Little Wanderer" (in which he ruminates, "We say our goodbyes over messenger / I hope your absence makes us fonder") and "You've Haunted Me All My Life," which has lyrics seemingly pulled from any sensitive high school sophomore's notebook of poetry.
Still, you get the sense this is an album that never could've sounded any other way – as the band settles into middle age and watches relationships fray and then falter, Gibbard isn't fighting it anymore. Instead, he finds hints of beauty in what's broken and resigns himself to the temporary nature of everything. While it might sound depressing (and it kind of is), it's also a little uplifting. After all, you'd be bummed too if you just lost Zooey Deschanel, but Gibbard ends the album with the Postal Service-esque song, "Binary Sea," and a line that demonstrates his awareness that this too shall pass: "Lean in close or lend an ear / There's something brilliant bound to happen here."