Death Cab for Cutie is one of those alt-rock staples that the music world will never really shake. After all, few tracks are as ingrained in the style of a genre and the psyche of a generation as “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” Album after album, they’ve dropped singles that have lingered in our collective musical consciousness: “Title and Registration,” “Cath,” “Soul Meets Body,” “Stay Young Go Dancing,” and the list goes on.
With these classics and a whopping total of seven studio albums behind them, the boys of Death Cab for Cutie have returned with 45 minutes of indie bliss in the form of their latest record, “Kintsugi.”
From the opening track, “No Room in Frame,” it’s clear that the band hasn’t changed much. We’re greeted with Benjamin Gibbard’s familiar voice and Death Cab’s signature smoothness, and it’s just as easy to get sucked into the calm, almost aquatic introduction to this track as it was to disappear into “Home is a Fire,” the leading track from “Codes and Keys.”
Even with the jazzy piano elements incorporated into “Black Sun,” the intro riff and vocals undeniably resemble the moodiness in “Meet Me on the Equinox.” It’s certainly a great song and catchy in its own right, even offering the occasional glimmer of a pop sound we haven’t yet heard from the band, but there’s also a strong sense that they haven’t strayed far from their musical roots.
Thematically, the band continues to flirt with the merger of sadness and sweetness. The name of the album, “Kintsugi,” is a homage to the Japanese technique of repairing shattered pottery with lacquer mixed with silver or gold, turning the visible damage into an integral, beautiful part of the work of art. It follows, then, that this record exalts the beauty in brokenness.
Gibbard’s lyrics deftly maneuver through this theme. The verses in “Little Wanderer” clearly struggle with finding something to hold onto in a long-distance relationship: “I count the hours on my hands / doing the math to the time zone you’re at / is an unseen part of the plan.” The gentle swell of guitars and dreamy harmonies carry this lover’s lament through to an ultimately happy ending, but the next few tracks hit harder.
“You’ve Haunted Me All My Life” gives a whole new emotional depth to the album. It opens with a simple, dark guitar and a bass drum reminiscent of a heartbeat, and continues with this simple, heartbreaking orchestration as Gibbard sadly croons.
Following that is “Hold No Guns,” which has a lighter, sweeter guitar sound, but the levity in Gibbard’s voice only adds to the pain of the chorus’s question: “My love, why do you run?”
Not every track is sad and acoustic, though. The ironic “Good Help (Is So Hard to Find)” bounces with a snappy drum beat and arcing, energetic guitar riffs, and “The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive” brings a fun beat, catchy chorus, and funky bass-and-drum bridge befitting its status as a leading single off the album.
Although most of the rest of “Kintsugi” is tonally consistent with the band’s penchant for calm, slow jams, there are glimmers of indie pop sprinkled in. The synth and machine beats in “Everything’s A Ceiling” show that Death Cab has at least taken a baby step into the dance/pop world of its indie peers, but they abandon that effort as Jason McGerr’s drums and Chris Walla’s free-spirited guitar break the song open into a hopeful, airy bridge replete with harmonies and soaring riffs.
McGerr’s drums are a significant force on this album, powering through two of the last three songs. Though the spacey harmonies of “El Dorado” fail to live up to the intense, rolling guitars on the track, the penultimate song more than makes up for it. The deft, triplet-filled drums of “Ingenue” create a fantastic base for the cinematic, building guitars, and the bass drum kicks the song perfectly into a fantastic climax.
The album closes with a soft piano and a re-introduction of the semi-aquatic themes introduced in “No Room In Frame.” “Binary Sea” feels vast and calm, resplendent with metaphors and saturated with images and sounds recalling a deep ocean, fading into pensive silence.
Overall, this album is extraordinary in that only this band could have created it. Hearing Gibbard’s voice again has the familiar feel of putting on an old, well-loved sweater, and the metaphors ring with his usual lovesick optimism. Like every Death Cab for Cutie album, this one has its fair share of songs that will get stuck in your head; I was humming “Little Wanderer” after just a few listens.
Essentially, this album has continued the same musical road Death Cab for Cutie has been treading since ‘98 — but really, did anyone want it to change?
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