Tales of woe seem to follow Death Cab for Cutie like the Bubonic Plague followed rats. Long have they been the flagship band for the emo kids who were never rebellious enough to listen to metal, nor cool enough to pioneer the original concept of the hipster. They were the emo band for those teenagers struggling through a break-up, or suffering from a superfluous case of world-weariness. They would find comfort in the melancholic music of Death Cab for Cutie as Benjamin Gibbard poured out his angst-ridden heart into the microphone.
Seventeen years later and the tale of woe is no longer found just in their music. They manifest in the physical nature of Death Cab for Cutie. A rift in their fanbase since the release of Codes and Keys has left their fans feeling alienated, and unsure of whether to welcome the new album or not. The split of Hollywood’s power indie couple, Gibbard and Zooey Deschanel, and the departure of Chris Walla from the band has also left the album steeped in an air of melancholy.
However, Death Cab for Cutie does not let this melancholy dominate the album. Gibbard uses it to influence his songwriting, and while a lot of the songs manifest themselves as break-up songs, they are not the petty kind that are steeped in scorn and venomous vitriol. They rather keep in line with the sound that the band introduced the world to in their breakout record Transatlanticism, but still draw on the Radiohead-esque synthetic influences that were explored in Codes and Keys.
The best way to describe Kintsugi would be through the album name itself. It is named after a Japanese art style that involves fixing broken ceramics with solid gold detailing. It is an apt way to describe the album. Kintsugi is really about Death Cab for Cutie, and specifically Gibbard, coming to terms with everything that has happened. It is a conscious effort to weave the tragedies surrounding the album into a tapestry that describes the searing emotional pain, and the attempt to find some kind of closure.
There are moments when Gibbard blatantly wears his heart on his sleeve about his divorce from Deschanel with songs like “No Room in Frame”. It is a sophisticated song that quite simply gives a tragic account of how the limelight caused their relationship to decay. The mournful chorus of “Was I in your way / when the cameras turned to face you? / No room in frame / for two” is the closest that Kintsugi shall get to ever achieving the same searing angst that characterized early Death Cab for Cutie. Lyrically, the album is a step-up for Gibbard as his lyrical capacities transcend into the realm of being fluid and simplistic poetry, as he gently spills his heart like an English literature major would spill their heart at the nearest open mic slam poetry event.
Sonically, Kintsugi truly shines. Many fans would raise the argument that the band had sold out when they released Codes and Keys. Perhaps they did. Perhaps every band that ever attempts to obtain some semblance of emotional and sonic maturity has, in fact, sold out to the man, or perhaps it was the realization of a group of men in their late 30s that they cannot keep making the same music they made when they were 21. However, Kintsugi manages to appease those fans. The album pays homage to Transatlanticism and Narrow Stairs. Delicate acoustic pieces and jagged indie rock instrumentals are peppered across the album, but these are tempered by tinges of electronic influences that are reminiscent of Radiohead. The crowning glory of the entire sonic backdrop of Kintsugi are the fluctuating guitar riffs that swell and crash upon the listener like waves crashing on a rocky shore. They serve as an almost bittersweet goodbye to the Walla’s skillful guitar work.
Essentially, Kintsugi is part poetry, part sonic masterpiece, and entirely a delicately woven tapestry of melancholy. It is an album that feels like a Death Cab for Cutie album, yet it is Death Cab for Cutie reborn; slightly more broken and rough around the edges, but better than ever.