Review Summary: Half measures.
I am the worst kind of flip-flopper. Of 2011’s Codes and Keys
, I wrote that the record’s fatal flaw wasn’t in the band’s much ballyhooed change of musical direction, but rather that Ben Gibbard was the key ingredient missing: “Until Gibbard can harness this newfound happiness with the kind of lyrical flair his fans are used to, Death Cab remain in danger of being, well, just another indie band.” Cue the ungrateful commenters claiming Death Cab for Cutie had always been
just another indie band, but don’t mind the schadenfreude – the Gibbard in such fine form on earlier Death Cab albums, that beautiful, caustic, self-destructive lyricist, was something to be treasured. Now comes Kintsugi
, an album with a narrative that practically writes itself. Man and beautiful movie star break up; man stews in creative juices for years; man’s creative partner and longtime conspirator leaves band; band saddles album with painfully transparent title. What I wanted from Codes and Keys
I have here, at least on the surface: pathos, Gibbard adrift, a band practically forced to try a new way of doing things. Why, then, does Kintsugi
leave me in much the same way that I felt after Gibbard was beseeching me to stay young and go dancing?
As you’ve probably heard by now, kintsugi is a Japanese art form that involves repairing broken pottery by highlighting what is being repaired; essentially, glorifying the imperfections and flaws rather than hiding them. Opener “No Room in Frame” seems to set out that this will be the album’s aesthetic, and it does it brilliantly. Gibbard has always been a specific writer; maybe not on the finely detailed level of a Samson or a Darnielle, but you knew the little landmarks in his most loved songs such that they became almost a part of your own graying memories. “No Room in Frame” leaves nothing to the imagination – the writer is “disappeared like a trend / in the hum of the 5 in the early morning,” as he questions, “was I in your way / when the cameras turned to face you? No room in frame / for two.” Shots fired! Gibbard has often been criticized for the relative overtness of his writing, but here, it paints a damning picture, a clear (some would say obvious) storm of regret and hurt, yet appropriately the message is mixed, muddled. Is Gibbard blaming himself or his ex-wife for the gulf that widened between them? In the end, he seems resigned to sharing responsibility: “And I guess it’s not a failure we could help / and we’ll both go on to get lonely with someone else.” It’s a sighing realization that anyone who has been in a failed relationship can relate to.
“No Room in Frame” is the exception that proves the rule: Kintsugi
is a record more content to lob up softballs than it is to go in for the kill. Likely the worst offender here is that song’s opposite number. Closer “Binary Sea” is hopelessly vague in both lyric and tone, saddled immediately by an undercooked metaphor, a shuffling dirge of a production choice and Gibbard’s unfortunately dramatic reading. It’s a companion piece to the worst of the meandering, lifeless songs that submarined Codes and Keys
. The rest of the songs here track somewhere between the sort of catchy radio bait that Death Cab can do in their sleep (“The Ghosts of Beverly Drive”) to limp, self-plagiarizing drivel like “Hold No Guns.” It’s tough to discern whether Chris Walla, who announced his departure months before the album release, is the missing component, although he did contribute here and there. By all accounts, the band has been working together better than ever, and producer Rich Costey (Foster the People) gives Kintsugi
the kind of confident depth and adept electronic touches that Codes and Keys
fumbled with. Perhaps it’s the consistency that’s maddening, as it’s when the band breaks things down a bit – that drillbit of distorted guitar that roars into first single “Black Sun,” the hazy, druggy sheen of “El Dorado” – that the band are able to craft memorable highlights when Gibbard’s lyrics retreat into cliché. Even with the somewhat embarrassing “Good Help (Is So Hard to Find)”, with its Blondie riff and six-years-too-late electro-pop leanings, one can’t help but give credit to the band being game to try something new.
That I’m giving credit for noble failures speaks to a problem that Death Cab may no longer be equipped to solve. Gibbard and company remain supremely well qualified when it comes to the songwriting department. The spartan, gorgeous “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life”; “No Room in Frame”; the sad and nostalgic “Little Wanderer,” pouring out a tale of long distance love that is tragic in hindsight: these are classic Death Cab songs. As an album, though, Kintsugi
suffers from many of the same flaws that have afflicted past releases, from a tendency to overthink arrangements to Gibbard’s more frequent relapses into trite turns of phrase and the occasional hint of immaturity. Maybe Kintsugi
merely signals a difficult transition for both Gibbard and the band, and its title will prove apt. More likely, though, is a conclusion I’ve come to expect – Death Cab will always be capable of producing classic songs, but that elusive return to form in the shape of an album will be as fleeting as one of the romances in Gibbard’s writing.