As the mandatory explanation that comes with Death Cab for Cutie’s latest full-length album goes: Kintsugi: the Record was written, recorded and tied together by the healing theme of repair. And Kintsugi: the Art is very much the same. The Japanese practice, mostly used in ceramics, mends broken pieces with liquefied or dusted metals like gold or silver. Aesthetically, kintsugi pieces are wildly different—the design and pattern of the repairs depends on the chaotic fractures of the whole piece. But ultimately, the philosophy of the art is that a piece’s fractures make for a more beautiful, structurally sound whole.
After the bombshell that founding multi-instrumentalist/producer Chris Walla was on his way out the door, after the still-unexplored territory of Ben Gibbard’s own divorce loomed since Codes and Keys’ 2011 release, after Gibbard’s public strides to replace the bottle with distance-running, how fitting did that feel for Death Cab for Cutie’s eighth LP? If the band’s 2005 road doc Drive Well, Sleep Carefully taught us anything, it was that Death Cab wouldn’t ever be the dysfunctional public spectacle that was say, Metallica or Oasis or hell, even Foxygen. But if there was a time the Seattle trio could use a little—uh, Kintsugi—well, that’d be 2015.
And by that definition, the title’s a perfect fit. Gibbard, bassist Nick Harmer, drummer Jason McGerr and Walla—who appears only as a player, not a producer—have created a concise sonic world for Kintsugi’s songs to live in. And while they’re easily identified as The Band Death Cab for Cutie by a few never-swaying factors—Harmer’s punchy bass, Gibbard’s distinct vocal—that landscape is very different than the guitar- and piano-led songs Death Cab’s churned out for decades. But since Codes and Keys’ release, something’s felt different—less jigsaw-esque—about Death Cab’s full-band approach. Walla and Gibbard’s interlocking guitars and keys—see Transatlanticism’s “Death of an Interior Decorator,” We Have the Facts’ “Title Track,” The Photo Album’s “Debate Exposes Doubt”—made way for more defined instrumentation. With Kintsugi, sub out McGerr’s wide-open drum tones for booming, sampled toms and throw in some heavily ‘80s synthesizers, and the Rich Costey (Jane’s Addiction, Mew)-produced recording is probably the biggest sonic outlier in the band’s catalog.
The hazy, Cure-tinted production serve the songs well. If nothing else, it’s a new, proper look at the band with deep roots, and—like The Cure—the aesthetic approach can make the heavy themes of breakup and isolation more endurable over an LP. But Kintsugi still feels like that aforementioned breakup record. It’s all over the tracklist, starting with “No Room in Frame.” “Was I in your way/When the cameras turned to face you?” Gibbard sings. And, as far as this writer can tell, that line seems like, pretty situationally specific. While Gibbard’s been understandably quiet about his divorce in the media, Kintsugi‘s opening tracks feel like a personal affair, at least—especially when it’s all roped together with Gibbard’s open distaste for L.A. culture that started on The Photo Album.
This gives way to a few great songs—pieces that actually pop off the record and were notably missing on Codes and Keys. “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive” is a proper Death Cab radio rocker with some great dynamic turns. The combo of “Little Wanderer”/”You’ve Haunted Me All My Life” deserves a place on any up-to-date breakup playlist in 2015. But for as cold as the production can be, the lyrical output follows the same path. Here, we don’t get melody-enriched yarns a la Transatlanticism or The Photo Album—but some tamer, less-pointed songs of heartache. “Everything’s a Ceiling” is a meditation on moving forward, and love’s worth gets a tongue-in-cheek assessment against imagery of binary ones and zeroes. They’re good tunes. But if we’re talking heartache, isolation, an inability to connect—classic Death Cab themes—much of Kintsugi arrives without the bite or energy that dragged listeners in before Atlantic Records was in the picture.
So maybe Kintsugi isn’t a perfect effort. But like the ceramic art itself, Death Cab’s attempt at repatching was thoughtful, deliberate and, at times, really beautiful.