Despite being one of the most successful acts to come out of the early 2000s “indie” boom, Death Cab for Cutie hasn’t been as critically revered as their peers. Perhaps it’s because of their emo tendencies, or dismissals that Ben Gibbard’s lyrics are often precious, or their awful name – a reference so obtuse that it screams “hipster” to many. They’ve deserved a lot better, and the party line that they’ve released nothing worth listening to after Transatlanticism is false.
Four years after the release of the band’s sunny Codes and Keys, the band has returned with what would seem to be that record’s stylistic opposite, Kintsugi. The record is named after the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with gold or other precious metals. The theme of mending what is broken through art is apt for the band: the record is the first following Gibbard’s divorce from Zooey Deschanel and their last to feature founding guitarist Chris Walla, who left during the recording.
Kintsugi is the band’s first album not to be produced by Walla and his production style is missed. One of the things that made the band’s sound endearing, particularly on well loved classics like “A Movie Script Ending,” was Walla’s ear for crisp drum hits and vibrant guitar. His replacement behind the boards is Rich Costey, who is best known for his work as the engineer for records by Fiona Apple, TV on the Radio and Chvrches. He’s a good fit for the band’s sound, the major difference between him and Walla is that Jason McGerr’s drums are noticeably further back in the mix than Walla would have had them, which is a bit distracting at first listen if you’re used to the stylistic template that Walla has created for the band over the years.
What makes Kintsugi so startling is how good it is. It’s probably the band’s best individual record since Transatlanticism and a better power-pop record than either the severely underrated Plans or the bright, introspective Narrow Stairs. The record is full of pop hooks, which are often juxtaposed onto lyrics that carry the record’s major thematic elements.
There’s been a lot written about how Kintsugi is a divorce record. Codes and Keys was a paean to married life, and Gibbard’s accumulation to Los Angeles, a city which he once wrote a song about how much he dislikes even visiting it. While Kintsugi will be forevermore a downer companion album to Codes, it is by no means bleak or pessimistic.
Zooey Deschanel does not haunt the album as much as claimed, but there’s no denying that much of the record is about their divorce. In particular, lead track “No Room in Frame,” one of the best power pop songs the band has ever released, has lyrics can be read as a reaction to the end of their relationship. Lyrics like the chorus of “Was I in your way/when the cameras turned to face you?/no room in frame/for two” suggest the rift between the couple in regards to Deschanel’s growing fame. It’s an obvious theme for the record, but the record does not suffer from it. It follows in the wake of other divorce pop records of the past, but less ABBA’s claustrophobic The Visitors, and more Lyle Lovett’s optimistic The Road to Ensenada. After all, the record is called Kintsugi, and the record both dwells on the past and tries to make something new out of the aftermath.
Another record that Kintsugi should be compared to is Gibbard’s 2012 solo album Former Lives, a record that was quite good, but seemed to have been glossed over by everyone but the most diehard Death Cab fans. That record seemed to contain divorce themes, even though much of it was likely recorded beforehand and Deschanel even appears on it. It seemed to document the process in progress, and acts as bridge between Codes and Kintsugi thematically and stylistically.
The rest of the record recalls Death Cab’s previous work and refines their more radio friendly tendencies. The slow building “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life” builds from gothic acoustic guitar to a more midtempo full band sound. Parts of the track share the
“The Ghosts of Beverly Drive,” another single, is far more musically upbeat than “Frame,” up there with “No Sunlight” and “I Was a Kaleidoscope” as one of the band’s more maddeningly catchy songs. I don’t think this one is as thematically about the divorce as “Frame” or “Black Sun” (which is full of symbolic imagery about the end of Deschanel and Gibbard’s relationship), but it’s certainly informed by the end of a relationship and what it left behind in the aftermath.
The record also plays with clashing styles: the acoustic “Hold No Guns” is followed by electropop “Everything’s A Ceiling.” “Good Help (is So Hard to Find)” has a slight Flannery O’Conner touch to the lyrics and musically resembles more a new wave Steely Dan.
The sample-heavy “Ingenue” is the record’s only significantly weak track, acting more like an atmospheric piece at the end of the album more than anything else.
Kintsugi is the band’s best record since Plans, and a welcome addition to rock’s divorce pop canon. It’s a welcome return to form for the band, but also continues the path they’ve blazed as elder statesmen of the current indie rock scene. Their next record will be the first one without Walla entirely. Kintsugi shows that the band can survive his departure as a producer, and it will be interesting to see where the band goes without his warm guitar tone following this impressive set.