Death Cab For Cutie
27 March (Atlantic Records)
By Josh Hughes
Ben Gibbard and his rainy day bandmates have succeeded in the last twenty years mostly on simple lyrics. He has a knack for writing about personal stories that come off as easily relatable without blinking an eye. Even though most people don’t know what it’s like to watch their city get engulfed in flames (“Grapevine Fires”), to get divorced to a movie star and contemplate life on Highway 1 (“No Room In Frame”), or to sit through an unbearable memorial for their absent father (“Styrofoam Plates”), (himself included) Gibbard writes specific vignettes that aren’t hard to find some meaning in. Death Cab For Cutie’s eighth record and first without founding member Chris Walla, however, ultimately wallows in rehashes of better stories without ever finding its groove. Here, instead of writing entirely fictional narrators to channel, Gibbard writes his own life into the eleven melancholic songs. Without that context, Kintsugi has a ghostly aura; one that starts the album effectively but slowly spirals downward with each consecutive song.
If the record had been cut off at track six, we’d instead have a nearly perfect EP of new material. Opener “No Room In Frame” ranks among the band’s most mesmerizing cuts, and allows Gibbard to deliver his best lyrics since 2008’s underrated Narrow Stairs. Over an ambient guitar track, his articulate and restrained delivery complements slightly angry, slightly detached lines like “I don’t know where to begin / there’s too many things that I can’t remember” and “Was I in your way? / When the cameras turned to face you / no room in frame / for two”. The following pair of songs, lead single “Black Sun” and the Clash meets Cure jam “Ghosts of Beverly Drive” work in similar fashion, with Gibbard using as little words as he can to express endlessly confusing and complex ideas. Sometimes they work: “There’s whiskey in the water / there’s death upon the vine”, and sometimes they don’t: “There’s a song yet to be sung”. Still, both tracks continue the pattern of subdued musicality, allowing room for spacious guitars and Nick Harmer’s increasingly groovy bass. After a well deserved guitar solo on “Black Sun”, the feedback strikes into Gibbard’s vocals and then suddenly stops halfway through the verse. There’s a repeated theme of underdeveloped musical ideas on the record, and on the first half those ideas come across as brilliant and keep the listener attentive, but the second half instead under bakes nearly every musical idea. There’s things that I wish were explored on the dreamy “Little Wanderer”, but there are already so many ideas being drawn out in its four minutes. That “No Room In Frame” only repeats the chorus once isn’t a sign of a song cut short as much as it is a clever tactic for a good pop song.
Unfortunately, Death Cab For Cutie enjoys the album far past their welcome, and due to poor track structuring, the stretch between “Everything’s a Ceiling” to “Binary Sea” falls oddly flat. Blame it partially on Chris Walla’s departure (this is the first DCFC album not produced by him), but Kintsugi begins reaching a level of radio alt-rock that one would expect from The 1975 or Atlas Genius. Gibbard reintroduces themes of unbearable distance in a relationship, but everything channels back to that one album where he invented a word for that distance (Transatlantacism). Part of the album’s blandness only makes their earlier releases sting more, when Gibbard ended a song with “I’m still thinking of what Sarah said / that love is watching someone die / so who’s gonna watch you die?” and no one dared call it melodramatic or cliché because of just how effective it was. This time around, he’s at a loss for words by the end of the album, and “Binary Sea” closes with a string of “oohs” instead of some quiet revelation. Through and through, Kintsugi tries to put the pieces of Death Cab For Cutie back together, and instead comes out as their most imbalanced album of all time. No album of theirs has reached the lows that Kintsugi does, but it’s also been nearly a decade since they’ve reached some of the highs.
Fave Tracks: “No Room In Frame”, “Black Sun”, “Little Wanderer”