Album Review: Death Cab for Cutie’s ‘Kintsugi’ wanders too far to resonate
In the four years since Death Cab for Cutie released “Codes and Keys,” I’ve been waiting (somewhat impatiently) for the next great album, one that would undoubtedly be marked by the emotional aftermath of lead singer Ben Gibbard’s divorce from actress Zooey Deschanel in 2011. Sad as I was to hear that the indie couple had split, I anticipated a break-up record that would set a new level of soul-moving melodies for the band.
Just before promotion for their newest album, “Kintsugi,” began, an unexpected bomb dropped — guitarist, producer and co-founding member Chris Walla announced in August that he would be leaving the band. Vague about his reasons, he expressed love and support for his former bandmates going forward.
“Kintsugi” is the final album featuring Walla and the first one he didn’t produce. I was heartbroken already, but it didn’t take long after I downloaded the album on March 31, plugged in my headphones and reacquainted myself with my long-time favorite band that my emotions took an even more depressing turn.
While most Death Cab albums aren’t uplifting, “Kintsugi” is pointed in its subject matter: the dissolution of a relatively short but passionate marriage, failures of past relationships and lifelong pursuit of one nameless woman who could make it all right, despite past experiences proving the futility of such a search.
One track that sticks out and make me feel like I’m actually listening to Death Cab for Cutie is “No Room In Frame,” a deceptively upbeat tune with a swinging beat that’s impossible to listen to without picturing Deschanel and wondering if you should catch the next episode of “New Girl.” Gibbard describes feeling out of place in his ex-wife’s stardom life, singing, “Was I in your way when the cameras turned to face you?” Walla’s guitar in this song drives home the bitterness and regret of Gibbard’s reflections.
“Little Wanderer” continues the long-distance relationship theme of “Transatlanticism,” capturing the frustration of wanting to be happy for a partner traveling abroad in Paris and Tokyo while missing them terribly.
“Doing the math to the time zone you’re at is an unseen part of the plan,” Gibbard writes, revealing that he hadn’t considered the difficulties that come with marrying an A-list actress like Deschanel.
The above tracks and others like “Black Sun” and “Everything’s A Ceiling” are great in that old Death Cab way, a perfect blend of poignant lyrics, simple guitar refrains and a good beat. Other tracks on “Kintsugi,” however, remind me of the occasional out-of-place song on past albums.
The problem with this album is that there’s considerably more of those out-of-place songs.
“Hold No Guns,” for instance, showcases Gibbard singing almost acapella over a quiet acoustic guitar, repeating the same two or three melodies over pointed lyrics. It’s a hard song to listen to because it doesn’t give the listener much to resonate with, but along with other tracks like “The Ghosts of Beverley Drive,” these songs seem to be functioning in a cathartic way for Gibbard as a musician.
The album is named after the Japanese art of fixing cracked ceramics with precious metals, a good metaphor for the band as it forms a new identity for itself without Walla.
I wanted to love “Kintsugi,” but it has too many elements of my least favorite Death Cab album, “Narrow Stairs.” It’s probably hard as a band to live up to masterpiece albums like “Transatlanticism” and “Plans,” but those albums are what took them from being a nobody band on an indie label to signing with Atlantic Records and becoming one of the biggest alternative rock bands around today.
I’m still excited to see them live in Tulsa later this month, but here’s hoping they stick more to their classics than some of the painfully bitter songs “Kintsugi” offers.