Album Review - Death Cab For Cutie - Kintsugi

Album Reviews
Gerrit Feenstra

When you are hurting, there's only one place that really makes it feel like everything's alright: home. When all is lost and your judgment's on the brink, going home gives you perspective. You remember where you've come from, and furthermore, just how far you've come between the last chapter and the one you find yourself in now. Here, you find beauty and security in the little things. For some it might be a group of friends that never moved away, that always greet you when you return. For others, it might be the old haunts where you used to walk around at night listening to music and feeling the wind on your face. For Ben Gibbard, it's the hum of I-5 in the early morning. It's here on a chilly Spring morning - sunrise breaking only slightly through cloud - that Death Cab For Cutie begin their eighth full length outing, Kintsugi. The faint smell of salty air hangs on the wind, and as the traffic begins to bustle, the hum gets louder with every minute.For the first four records, the band dealt with what is, and how it got there. For the next four (or maybe five or six), the band has turned forward into the horizon, making plans and breaking them, learning to deal when the tides rise and when they fall, making the best of it at every opportunity. For the last time around almost four years ago, Ben Gibbard had left his home state of Washington and was living in Los Angeles, the city where rock stars live with their wives and their rock records. Codes & Keys carried this feeling of exodus heavy in its bones. There was a burning in the heart and a realization that there really is no line on the horizon, giving way to wonderful new perspective and opportunity. But even amidst such hopefulness, life finds a way to introduce unexpected change. The recipe for the movie script ending was less than the sum of its parts. Thus, Ben found himself returning home to Seattle to figure out what the benefit of it all was.

What do we do in the wake of brokenness? So often, in our increasingly complicated technological culture, the answer is replacement - if it doesn't work how you think it's supposed to, get a new one. But for other things, like relationships and dreams and self image, replacement is harder to do. Instead, we must find a way to take the brokenness and make it whole again, despite the volatility. Ben Gibbard found the perfect metaphor for it not too long ago - it's a Japanese art craft called Kintsugi, where cracked pottery is fixed by using gold powder to fill cracks and make the object more beautiful and sturdy than ever. It's this concept that Death Cab For Cutie offer us on our eighth journey together. The record marks the last one with participation from founding member Chris Walla. It also marks the first effort to make use of an outside producer, in the form of Rich Costey. But even in wake of these changes - as life holds so many in its fragile form - Death Cab bring a full and rewarding offering in Kintsugi, one that only seems to feel sturdier over time. Here, Death Cab show us that new perspective might be found out on the road, searching endlessly for some new muse to inspire. But with a journey home, a new vision is guaranteed, one that looks both backwards and forwards from what you know to how you want to use it, and makes brokenness a beautiful object.

I-5 is such a metaphor for Ben Gibbard it's not even funny. It's the most frustrating free portion of highway in any city in which it resides, but it's also the only way to get most places. Furthermore, it's a highway that runs directly between Los Angeles and Seattle. Thus, for this reason, it's all too appropriate that the follow up to Codes & Keys begins here. The churning, piano driven ballad hums forward with a driving tenure, and a warmth that feels so good that Rich Costey's newly present input is instantly welcome. There's a question and answer cadence that doesn't feel altogether unlike "Bixby Canyon Bridge", but the questioning and timidity of the verse is answered with a confident hopefulness that puts the chorus of "No Room In Frame" in a different dimension than its predecessors. Lyrically, things are less obviously upbeat. Where four years ago there were unobstructed views, now, the frame feels crowded. But listening closer, there is good reason. It's not that Gibbard is constantly trying to fit but can't - rather, he's found peace in knowing the shot isn't meant for two. It's this peace that Kintsugi is centered around - "No Room" serves as both the album's introduction and thesis statement, which is explored throughout the rest of the record. Before this peace is found, there a lot of perspective shift that needs to happen over the next ten tracks.

With the record's lead single, Death Cab tackle the guise of false expectation. The half time psychedelic churn is a new direction for the band musically, but the staples of the Death Cab sound are here in full form, most particularly that incredible Nick Harmer bass line. Also, just as a side note, if this marks Chris Walla's last screaming guitar solo with Death Cab, then I think he went out on a pretty good note. Lyrically (and further visualized in the video for the song shown below), the song lays out Gibbard's expectations of life in Los Angeles through the use of Hollywood tropes. There is a double-sided nature to the bright lights that isn't lost on Gibbard, and awareness of this brings about a separation of self. There's the first crack in the picture. "The Ghosts of Beverly Drive" brings the next one, this time in the form of a car accident. Here, the ghosts of the past and the dying light of mistakes you can't take back haunt without ceasing over a relentless, driving track. Death Cab debuted this one at their surprise Crocodile show back in January, and there just a couple songs after "Doors Unlocked and Opened", it's no doubt this one will become a similarly phenomenal live staple.

The pile of guarantees continues to shrink on the next three tracks. "Little Wanderer" sees a friend disappear into the tangled web of technological communications never to be found again. Digital separation is a theme that pops up again, ending the record with "Binary Sea". While neither of these come off as heavy-handed or technophobic, they do remind us that texting someone "I need you so much closer" and telling them to their face are two impossibly different things. And when things are rough and you need your friends close, the white noise continues to mangle our ability to help each other.

"You've Haunted Me All My Life" is one of the most beautiful offerings on the record. It's lovely to hear Ben and Chris together on the vocals as well as the jangling Transatlanticism-era guitar parts. And of course, fitting perfectly underneath this is that dynamic bass line from Nick - a true classic Death Cab track through and through. Lyrically, Ben deals with a promise of love or relationship never fully realized. Whoever the target character is, be it God or a family member who left the picture long ago, contentment or even just assurance, "You've Haunted Me" is a testament to change and how we loathe it because it forces us to act with consciousness of the long-term. It's this "long-term" that scares us further on "Hold No Guns". Here, Gibbard gives us a sort of sequel to "I Will Follow You Into The Dark", now with a lot more clarity and self-knowing than he had almost ten years ago. The promise of death is ever-present, but rather than dwelling on the end, Gibbard asks a lover to embrace the present and the love available in the moment. There's no need to panic because there's no need to run. This quiet intermission gives Kintsugi one of its best, and the bare-bones recording is just as incredible as anything we heard on Gibbard's 2012 solo record Former Lives.

With peace in the wake of futility, Death Cab bring a lightness to the third quarter of Kintsugi. "Everything's A Ceiling" is a bright synthesizer-heavy pop track (yes, this is still Death Cab For Cutie) that embraces the shift in perspective as opportunity. Here, a relationship full of holes dug into the ground is flipped on its head. "I've got nowhere to go except further below so I keep digging", Ben sings, "It gets darker every day but I see no other way than just committing". On "Good Help (Is So Hard To Find)", Gibbard revisits the views on life and death he's been consistently exploring on the last couple Death Cab records, with a focus (like on "Hold No Guns") of embracing the now rather than letting the weight of it all pin you down. On both of these tracks, familiar Death Cab guitars counterbalance Gibbard's great pop hook of a chorus. "Everything's A Ceiling" has bits more of the fragile Trans era sparseness, while "Good Help" holds more of a "You Are A Tourist" meatiness. The latter definitely sees Costey's influence more than any other on the record, but it's never to a point where it's alienating to the listener. Both of the album's pop tracks here find the band exploring new territory while keeping the heart and soul in the dueling songwriting we've always loved from the band.

"El Dorado" begins with a great teaser for veteran fans - a wonderful little semblance of "Little Fury Bugs" from We Have The Facts. But outside the guitar, the track feels like it explores turn of the 2000s era Death Cab in heavy detail. Jason McGerr finally gets to let loose on the drums a little, giving a complex and furious floor to the driving guitar and bass on the track. Nick and Jason play off each other wonderfully on this track, moving forward at breakneck speed as images seem to fly by. Here, Gibbard takes a breath and lays out Kintsugi's final cracking point: what to do when goodbye is the best policy. Supporting a loved one in a nonconsensual goodbye is one of the hardest things to do, but we try, because we want the best for them. With a friend on the road to gold, there will come a day when the gates will shut behind, but Gibbard knows this and is trying to embrace it. "El Dorado" ends all too quickly with a wonderfully melodic, shimmering ending that wraps up the plot points for Kintsugi and rounds the final corner for the home stretch.

"Ingenue" is, in many ways, the end to Kintsugi. "Binary Sea" is one last call to embrace those you love in the wake of technological separation, and knowing all that we've learned from the process of brokenness and healing, and to really live together despite the catastrophic odds, but it isn't what rounds Kintsugi out and gives it a bookend. On "Ingenue", Ben Gibbard addresses a starry eyed young woman with all that he's learned in his journey of dreams and dreams deferred. Here, holding the currency of being 23, Gibbard urges her to not sell herself short and become an "Adelaide" or a "Talking Bird". Hopefulness is not naivety - it's not an ignorance that needs to be dashed against the rocks as time goes on. Rather, it's an opportunity if approached with the right perspective. Yes, there's a clock on the wall counting down our days, but the days in between now and then are ones yet to be lived to the fullest. And as that dueling guitar comes in that echoes "The Stable Song" with all the hope and brightness that Plans never held, it's a moment that makes the hairs on your neck stand on end. Death Cab have taken something broken and made it beautiful. The valleys cut into faces aren't in vain - age has given Ben Gibbard and company perspective and desire to share. Death Cab face the changing of the tide with ever present grace, and Kintsugi is a testament to this in every way.

Kintsugi is out this week on Atlantic. Grab it at your local record store on CD or gold vinyl! Death Cab with tour in support of Kintsugi later this year! Catch them one of three nights at the Paramount the first week of October. Two nights are sold out, but grab tickets for Monday, October 5, here.

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