With the release of Death Cab for Cutie’s 8th studio album, Kintsugi, the focus naturally will be on lead singer Ben Gibbard’s recent divorce with everyone’s indie-girl crush of the mid-2000’s, Zooey Deschanel. Gibbard’s heartfelt, poignant lyrics, and distinct voice have driven the band’s success, allowing them to carve out their own corner of indie rock fame.
What’s lost amid this semi-celebrity break-up is the departure of lead guitarist and founding member Chris Walla. Walla, announcing he was leaving the band during the recording of the album—apparently on good terms—nevertheless stayed through the process of writing and recording, including final production work before its release. It’s this dynamic—far more than the divorce of Gibbard and Deschanel—that is important to the album’s sound and feel. Kintsugi also provides acute insight into what Death Cab for Cutie may sound like in the future.
The opening number, “No Room in Frame”, meanders through the atmosphere in classic Death Cab style. A perfectly chosen introduction for the album as it reintroduces the easy melodic sound that the indie-rock quartet has crafted over the years, regardless of how forgettable this song may actually be.
Their most recent release, 2011’s Codes and Keys, signaled a slight departure from a mostly guitar driven sound—moving towards an eclectic mix of ambience and atmosphere. A continuation of this musical direction is evident. Numbers like “Everything’s a Ceiling” and “El Dorado” are beat driven, up-tempo tracks with a glitzy overproduced feel that may rankle long-time fans.
However there are several songs on Kintsugi that find a perfect balance of electronics, shimmering guitar melodies, and Gibbards heartfelt lyrics. “Black Sun” is a gem of a song, molding together and showcasing the talents of all four musicians. A riff during the verses is complemented perfectly by Jason McGerr’s percussion, before giving away to a moody hook by Gibbard—backed by sharp electronic effects—who finds a downtrodden tone reminiscent of the brilliant “Grapevine Fires” off 2008’s Narrow Stairs.
“Ghosts of Beverly Drive” contains a rare distorted guitar riff, but Gibbard’s cadence and crooning on complements the shift of distorted to clean punctuated guitar notes seamlessly, while surrounded by a wall of sound and electronic effects. “Little Wanderer” showcases Gibbard’s talents as a story teller. With haunting guitars and minimalist percussion, Gibbard paints a picture of modern dystopian love across distance. In a world of constant connectivity it’s a reminder that isolation is part of human nature.
But it’s on songs like “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life” and “Hold no Guns” that Gibbard really plucks at the emotional tendrils. Haunting electronic effects and minimal acoustic strumming on “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life” permeates with acute desperation. “Hold no Guns” is a stripped down acoustic number that harkens back to the early 2000’s Death Cab for Cutie and is sure to be heard on some future indie move soundtrack. “Ingénue” starts off like a Thom Yorke solo effort before quickly dissolving back into familiar territory, while the closer “Binary Sea” begins with desolate piano keys before a mix of electric soundscapes encapsulate Gibbard’s sentimental tone—fading out and marking the end of an era for this version of Death Cab for Cutie.
The album name Kintsugi—a Japanese term for a method of fixing pottery that aims to showcase the cracks and repair marks as part of a piece’s history—is an apt name for this album. Many will attribute this directly to Gibbard’s relationship to Deschanel. But this creative process had to be something of an anomaly for the band itself. Knowing the guitarist Walla was leaving, yet still contributing heavily to this piece of work, it must have made for an interesting dynamic.
Sometimes our evolution through the phases in life can leave their marks on the surface. Death Cab for Cutie—as well as Gibbard personally—seems to be embracing these changes, not hiding them. While Kintsugi doesn’t blow the listener away, it’s a reminder of where the band came from and where it is going. This is a solid effort that should please both longtime fans and newer listeners. Wherever Death Cab for Cutie goes from here, they already have a long legacy of success, and Kintsugi is another positive piece of evidence to add to their catalog.