Though Walla remained on board for recording, he has since parted ways with the group to produce solo work and didn't produce/mix/engineer this album as he had every Death Cab album before this one. And sadly for Gibbard and indie romantics everywhere, he and his wife separated, finalizing their divorce in 2012.
It's easy to think that this record could have been a glorious dive back into the dark human depths of DCFC's yesteryear, and it's easy to see why. Gibbard, as a lyricist, has long been dogged by the stories about which he sings, often mistaken for the main character in any given song. Every interview about this album has touched on the fact of his divorce and how much it has informed the content of the songs. To quote his interview with Billboard: "I'm not going to change the way I've always written for fear of people correctly or incorrectly assigning a name and face to these songs... I've always written about my life and the lives of people around me, and how everything intersects."
While some of the songs undeniably deal with Gibbard's personal life, it doesn't matter. Gibbard's central talent of making every song personal, to him or the listener, is still on full display on Kintsugi, and the sonic landscape is no less rich or intriguing minus Walla's hands-on involvement. After the harshness of 2008's Narrow Stairs and the interesting meanderings of Codes and Keys, Kintsugi is an important step and statement from a veteran band that still wants to explore.
First, that title: "kintsugi" refers to a Japanese practice of mending broken ceramics using lacquer mixed with precious metals, often gold. It translates as "golden repair," the idea being to celebrate the history of an object, breaks or cracks notwithstanding. As many have pointed out, it's an apt title for an album created by rents and rifts. Pair this with the first line of the opening track, "No Room in Frame," as Gibbard sings "I don't know where to begin…" It's like looking at the pieces left behind without an idea of the shape they will eventually take.
That said, "No Room in Frame" is one of the more obviously Zooey-inspired tracks on the album. "Was I in your way, when the cameras turned to face you? / No room in frame for two," he laments. It's a relatively sparse song, relying mostly on Gibbard's thoughtful tones as he travels familiar territories and muses about, well, love and loss. What else is there? A more layered sound builds through the song, rhythm guitar giving way to out-of-focus keyboard textures and ending on a more traditional Death Cab guitar piece courtesy of Walla. "We'll both go on to be lonely with someone else," Gibbard concludes.
"Black Sun," the second song and first single from the album, opens with a measured two-note guitar riff paced like a pensive stride. This song is the yin to the opening yang, rougher and angrier than the lighter "No Room in Frame." "How could something so fair be so cruel?" is the crux of the song, asked repeatedly before Walla opens up a hard fuzzed-out guitar that ends abruptly, like a changing mood. Whiskey in the water, death on the vine, fear in the eyes, beauty in a failure, depths beyond compare—the lyrics brood above the steady rhythm and electronic textures backing the track. This is the kind of thing Death Cab does extremely well. If Ben Gibbard had never even met Zooey Deschanel, the song would still retain power because of Death Cab's talent to infuse deceptively simple thoughts with emotional truth and power. Perhaps even better is the ending verse: "There is grace within forgiveness / but it's so hard for me to find." Admitting to your struggles despite knowing the road is quintessentially Gibbard.
"Ghosts of Beverly Drive," track three, highlights another Death Cab talent: fun and bright music obscuring the painful story told by the lyrics (see: "Crooked Teeth," "The Sound of Settling," "Long Division," etc.). As indicated by the title, this is the first of a few songs on the album that deal with another perennial Gibbard topic, celebrity and the culture that comes with it. He speaks of not knowing why he returns to "the scenes of these crimes, where the hedgerows slowly wind / Through the ghosts of Beverly Drive / I don't know what I expect to find / Where all the news is second hand / And everything just goes on as planned." The emptiness of L.A. and its celebrity denizens makes a few appearances on this album, but this track includes a kind of mea culpa in the shape of a central conundrum that exists for any working artist, but particularly in this time and place. "You wanna teach but not be taught / and I wanna sell, but not be bought / so let us not be lonesome, lost in between our needs and wants."
The fifth and sixth tracks, "You've Haunted Me All My Life" and "Hold No Guns" are gentler interludes that feature mostly Gibbard and a guitar, palate cleansers for the musical shift to come. "You've Haunted Me" could have been a B-side from the earliest DCFC works, simple emotion and simple arrangement adding to a greater whole, though it certainly employs some subtle sonic tricks picked up in the intervening years. "Hold No Guns" is even simpler and shorter, a series of questions asked of a retreating lover. "My love, why do you run? / For my hands hold no guns."
Remember that '80s-fest I mentioned? Track seven, "Everything's a Ceiling," takes that and runs with it, opening on pure synth over knocking and clapping percussion. "Way, way down in a hole / There's no feeling / 'Cause when you're so far beneath the floor / Everything's a ceiling," Gibbard sings, again happy to lay sharply depressing lyrics over happier music. That's the thing: though odd, the synth conceit is owned totally, and an unmistakable Death Cab riff emerges through the chorus as Gibbard sings about being left in his hole, calling out for his love while she's "miles away, digging with someone new." Then the band turns the '80s up a notch, ushering in a tap-tap rhythm reminiscent of the start of "(I've Had) The Time of My Life." It's a crazy mashup, '80s pop rhythms combined with vintage Death Cab for Cutie, but it works. It's a seamless transition, too, around the 2:30 mark, when the two influences blend easily into one song, and you'd never guess that opening connects to this ending. This dovetails nicely with the imagery in the lyrics, as Gibbard resolves himself to simply keep digging, since "if the Earth is as round as they say / Then I won't find another place / From where I break back through / That's farther away from you."
"Good Help (Is So Hard To Find)" puts another log on the celebrity-burning fire. "You'll never have to hear the word "no" / If you keep all your friends on the payroll," Gibbard begins. This too is an upbeat tune, of course accompanied by further warnings about the realities, or perhaps unrealities, of living life insulated from challenges to one's artistry or development. The guitar chugs, slides, and shimmers beneath the vocal, supported in turn by an enthusiastic if traditional rhythm. It's one of the more polished tracks on the album and provides a nice lead-in to the fascinating "El Dorado."
Another retro intro, with plenty of reverb creating an echoing guitar soundscape, gives way to a more propulsive rhythm section that drives the track. Set at a gig "over in Culver City, shining bright, name in lights," Gibbard sings not as the musician, but as an audience member in attendance to support... someone. Given the nature of the album, I'll leave it to you to decide whether or not this is another Zooey song. "I tried to be hyped for you," he repeats. "Seems you finally found, finally found El Dorado / So why does it feel underwhelming, barely real?" The song is a showcase for a number of major Death Cab themes, and not just from this album. Sure, there's the maybe-sorta Zooey Deschanel influence, but again there's Gibbard's own mixed feelings over whether or not to even attend the event, the difficulties he has in trying to be excited for his friend, and the trouble he has in general with the idea of fame, of a name in lights.
|Death Cab for Cutie performs on Letterman.|
"Ingenue," track ten, would seemingly be another song directed to or written about Gibbard's ex-wife, but it's not so easily classified. As in older Death Cab work, Gibbard's voice is filtered here for the first time on several Death Cab albums, and to great effect. "What have we done to you?" he asks of the titular ingenue in the opening lines. He speaks of the "currency of being twenty-three" and advises her to "take what you can" and then to "escape from this town / Before your sand runs out." Though "framed like a cartoon / The borders clear and defined / the colors bold and bright," eventually she'll want to be "taken more seriously / But they just play a cue / And it's such a hard thing to do." It's not long until he asks instead, "What will become of you?," questioning what will happen when "age's glacial pace / Cuts valleys into your face." While I'm sure some of Zooey leaked into the song, it feels more like a critique of how celebrity uses people, or uses them up. It's a warning, but perhaps a fruitless one, given the powerful lure of fame and its potentially brief offerings.
"Binary Sea" closes out the album, wrapping everything up with a kind of parable about modern life and our interaction with each other. Lyrically, it's among the strongest tunes on the album, and the arrangement reflects this, backing Gibbard's front-and-center vocals with a light piano and more atmospheric, electronic textures (all of which appear on this album courtesy of new producer Rich Costey, presumably). It would have been right at home on 2005's Plans.
Gibbard introduces Atlas, the mythical Titan who bears the world on his shoulders. Despite, as Gibbard says, the world being "so much smaller than the one he used to hold before," the weight "brought him to the floor." And what do we do in response to this apocalyptian scenario, of the world dropping from its support? "As you watched him struggle to his feet / You took photos capturing his defeat / And messaged them to all your friends / And we all laughed at his expense." I could reprint every line here, because it's quite incisive in the prettiest way, in true Death Cab fashion. As the song goes on, he asks the listener to swim out in that vast binary sea, where "zeroes and ones, patterns appear / They'll prove to all that we were here / For if there is no document / We cannot build our monument." Our obsession with documenting every facet of our lives distracts us from what is meaningful, he says. We're so determined to make memories and capture everlasting moments that living falls by the wayside. The same happens to Atlas by song's end.
Death Cab for Cutie is now a group of elder statesmen for the indie-darling scene of which it used to be a central part. Like any band of their longevity, they've had to evolve to survive, but for the best reasons. Gibbard has spoken of wanting to distance the band from becoming too self-referential, from retreading ground just because it was an easy path to walk. Without Walla, we'll see where the path leads from here on out, but Kinsugi is a terrific first step. While they're well past spending the currency of being 23, they have stuff of greater value to trade on. Gibbard's trademark brand of rueful wisdom, his ability to give personal voice to difficult feelings and stories, has aged well and should continue to.
This is music we're talking about here, however, and everyone has an opinion. Let us hear yours in the comments below! Hipsters, was Death Cab soooooooo much better before they were championed by The O.C.? Lovers of The New Girl, is Ben Gibbard being too mean on this album? Normal people, how does the music sound to you? Chime in!