The emotional poppish-rockers are back. Death Cab For Cutie’s eighth full-length effort Kintsugi is undeniably a breakup album. There’s the obvious -- Zooey Deschanel -- and the not-as-obvious-but-still-important -- multi-instrumentalist and longtime producer Chris Walla. Walla, who’s been with the band since inception and produced all their albums except for this one, announced during the recording cycle that this album would be his last with Death Cab. Frontman Ben Gibbard has had to deal with a lot of separation lately, and Kintsugi represents his effort at working through it.
Gibbard wastes no time getting into his failed relationship with über-cute actress Zooey Deschanel. (For the unfamiliar: Gibbard and Deschanel married in September 2009 and separated in November 2011. Zooey filed for divorce a month later and went on to star in the successful and ongoing TV series New Girl.) The album opens with the frustration of reminiscence. “I don’t know where to begin / there’s too many things that I can’t remember” Gibbard admits to us in the first lines of the first song, “No Room In Frame.” By the chorus, though, he has a clear theory of what went wrong: Zooey’s stardom. “Was I in your way / When the cameras turned to face you?” Gibbard asks, already knowing the answer.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of Zooey on the album. She’s the focal point of more than a couple songs (“No Room In Frame”, “Black Sun”, “Ingénue”). “Ghosts of Beverly Place” and “El Dorado” chronicle Gibbard’s distaste of Los Angeles, where he lived with Zooey. Both are breakup songs directed at the city as much as the actress, and they feature some of the lines which, as someone getting over a breakup of his own, hit me the hardest. From “Beverly“: "I don’t know why / I don’t know why / I return to the scene of these crimes.” From “El Dorado”: “And I tried to be kind for you / I’m trying to be kind for you.” Both of these snippets capture the mental anguish we put ourselves through after a breakup. “Little Wanderer” tells the tale of a boyfriend longing to be with his ever-traveling girlfriend, but it’s an easy intuitive leap to make from an arbitrary couple to Ben and Zooey. She dominates the record's cognitive space.
As a whole, Kintsugi does a lot pretty well, but it fails to move the needle much on Death Cab’s image or legacy. The album is littered with post-Transatlanticism Death Cab staples: medium tempo tunes with eighth-note guitar riffs seated comfortably in the center, downtempo acoustic numbers relying on Gibbard to deliver the emotion, lyrics relying on metaphors to create interesting images. There’s nothing wrong with any of this -- Death Cab chose to rely heavily on a formula which has worked well for them before -- but it’s easy to wish for something a little more ambitious.
Kintsugi is also top-heavy; the first five songs are the album’s best. Somewhat bizarrely, the four cuts released prior to the album are the album's first four songs. These are four radio-ready Death Cab tunes and were enough to make me excited to hear the rest of the album. The fifth, "You've Haunted Me All My Life", is the first comedown and probably the record's saddest. After this, though, the potency of Gibbard’s songwriting declines a bit, and the trusty Death Cab formula underperforms despite some additional emphasis on synth in an attempt to freshen up the sound. The highlight of the second act is “El Dorado,” but it fails to salvage the collective “eh” of the back half of the record.
The album title, Kintsugi, refers to the Japanese art of making ceramic pottery from broken pieces. It’s an apt metaphor for what Gibbard and the band are trying to do with the album: they’ve entered early-middle age, they’re learning first-hand what that entails (especially Gibbard), and they’re trying to make art from the broken pieces of their lives. The band don’t do a terrible job, but they don’t do an excellent job either. They've rearranged the pieces into something useful but commonplace. We’ve seen this before; it’s not at all bad, but it lacks an element of excitement and freshness. Although, largely on the strength of the first five songs, Kintsugi is still a Death Cab record, which is a pretty darn good thing for a record to be.
6.8/10 - A strong start fades into a forgettable stretch of music, but a lot of what makes Death Cab good is still here. It’s just not as exciting as it used to be. Fans of Death Cab since Transatlanticism will like it well enough. People going through breakups will perhaps like it more than they should. Those new to Death Cab should look elsewhere for an entry point.