Album Review: Death Cab for Cutie – Kintsugi

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Death Cab for Cutie are back and not without bite. Kintsugi, as a quick Internet search reliably informs me, is the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with precious metals. Given Ben Gibbard’s well-publicised divorce with Zooey Deschanel, as well as the departure of long-time member Chris Walla, you get the impression that Death Cab aren’t burying the lead here. This is going to be an album about taking something broken and making it better. The pottery in this instance could be interpreted as the band itself or, perhaps more likely, that classic staple of love gone wrong, a heart. That might churn more than a few stomachs but remember this is Death Cab for Cutie we’re talking about. This is a band that has long traded in wrought emotion and has, for the most part, long excelled.

‘No Room in Frame’ is a perfect opener in this sense. It’s both reflective and considered, yet salted with bitterness and melancholy. ‘Was I in your way when the cameras turned to face you?’ Gibbard sings on the chorus hook, and already we have a pretty clear idea of whom he’s referring to. The instrumentation works well to complement the subject matter with a lead guitar line that feeds through grandiose chords, and the whole thing nearly manages to sound like the kind of stadium rock ballads that U2 were once renowned for.

The first single from the album, ‘Black Sun’, continues from where its predecessor left, and while the song is sombre in both tone and tempo it still has an edge. This is evidenced by its careful plotting of dynamics, a jagged middle eight of distorted guitars and Gibbard’s wry yet earnest appraisals like ‘there is beauty in a failure’ or ‘there is grace within forgiveness.’ Still, while it’s a good tune, on first listen it’s tempting to feel that the album is going to continue at this downbeat pace.

Thankfully, ‘The Ghosts of Beverly Drive’ picks things up and Death Cab really get to demonstrate their new energy. ‘Ghosts’ is a clear standout on the album, with urgent instrumentation, a killer chorus and the kind of thoughtful introspection that elevated opus Transatlanticism beyond other indie-rock albums of the early 2000s. It’s a shame then that the track should be followed by what is potentially the weakest moment on the album, ‘Little Wanderer’. This is a tedious dirge that might have kept better company on the somewhat pacified Codes and Keys than on an album that, in both name and content, should demonstrate spirit, strength, and above all, overcoming of obstacles.

The next brace of tracks, ‘You’ve Haunted Me All My Life’ and ‘Hold No Guns’, continue with this mood, and while safe territory for Death Cab, are more effective as far as balladry goes. The former is a great exercise in understatement, with spare yet subtle arrangements of keys and guitars and unfussy percussion. The latter is an intimate song, stripped back to just acoustic guitar and vocals, reminiscent of hit single and fan favourite ‘I Will Follow You into the Dark’.

The second half of the album shows a much more adventurous and experimental side This doesn’t always pay off however, as the next triplet of songs shows. ‘Everything’s a Ceiling’ sees Death Cab take on a more synth-led sound, but unfortunately it comes across as the kind of bland soft rock that Phil Collins is so decried for. ‘Good Help (Is So Hard to Find)’ is certainly livelier, with impellent drums and angular, palm-muted riffs, but that doesn’t prevent the song from sounding a bit uninspiring and forgettable. On the other hand, ‘El Dorado’ works well with its galloping beat and arpeggiated guitars. The track doesn’t quite evolve and progress beyond this however, and unfortunately doesn’t reach the kind of mythic Promised Land its title suggests.

Penultimate track ‘Ingenue’ is a much better demonstration of structured, engaging songwriting. The song is immediately captivating with complex and intricate drum patterns and a measured build-up that pays off in spades with an epic crescendo that seems custom-built for the kind of performances best suited to festivals and massive concert halls and are as uplifting as they are life-affirming. Closing things off is piano-led ‘Binary Sea’, a somewhat drearier affair with an uninspired chorus and melody.

Overall, the album lives up to its premise. For the most part, it demonstrates a renewed vitality with songs that are both assured and affecting. However, there is the recurrent sense throughout that this is a band who are caught between invention and playing it safe. Half of the tracks showcase direction and verve, while the other half seem to present, as far as Death Cab are concerned, old, retrodden ground. The fans will no doubt be well served by this latest offering, which is definitely a return to form for the band. Kintsugi is an album that shows a band brought back together, only perhaps without the gold dust.

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