In Brief: This might be Death Cab’s poppiest album yet, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but I get the feeling over the course of these eleven tracks that adding catchy rhythms, sound effects, and vocal refrains to these songs meant more to the band than emotional authenticity. There’s depth and pathos to be found here, but it gets buried under the pretty surface quite a bit.
It’s hard for me to place exactly how I feel about Death Cab for Cutie sometimes. I generally enjoy their music. It’s moody and yet poppy, sometimes in subversive ways, and the band’s shown a great amount of flexibility from their underground/emo/indie rock origins up through the present day. I don’t pretend to get anything super-profound out of most of their material, but I see their willingness to walk that fine line between artfulness and accessibility, and it’s something that I respect for the most part. I had to work backwards after first discovering an affinity for the band on their 2011 album, Codes & Keys, and this probably sets me apart from most of their fanbase, and maybe even the band members themselves, who have kind of distanced themselves from that record like it was some sort of a weird, highly experimental one-off that will now be seen as the red-headed stepchild of their discography. Call me crazy, but Ben Gibbard actually seemed reasonably happy on that record, and I sort of felt that mood fit his voice a little better, because when I listen to some of their rockier or more lo-fi material from back in the day, I can’t help but feel like his rather unassuming vocals are a bit out of place. Then again, the band’s style never fit the name, so I don’t suppose it makes much sense to wonder if the voice fits the style. Gibbard writes whatever kinds of songs he wants to write; genre is an apparent afterthought. That led to a lot of groove-oriented material on Codes & Keys that wasn’t specifically guitar-driven but that emphasized different lead instruments at different times, and I found that interesting, even if I was in the minority.
What’s especially weird to me is that their long-awaited follow-up, Kintsugi (which is named after the Japanese aesthetic of repairing a broken object in such a way that the breakage becomes a clear part of its history), isn’t immediately all that different – the guitar might take the lead more noticeably on several tracks, but at times it seems they’ve doubled down on the electronic experimentation and the just plain catchy indie pop melodies. I’m not the type of guy who would call “sellout” upon hearing such things – they tickle my eardrums and I’m happy with that. But given the weight of personal experience that led to Kintsugi‘s creation, with Gibbard’s short-lived marriage to actress Zooey Deschanel going up in smoke and long-time band member/producer Chris Walla declaring that this would be his last album with the band, there are times when all of the layering and sonic trickery and downright radio-friendliness of this record can seem a bit disingenuous. The lyrics hint at a certain heavy-heartedness that the music either doesn’t do justice, or when it seems like it’s trying to, then well, to be honest, it gets kinda boring. That makes Kintsugi a passable, even pleasant listen on superficial terms, but not a record that I connect with all that deeply, despite the fact that I usually have a strong affinity for breakup albums. With so many of the songs having that “journal entry forced into a rhyme scheme feel” typical of songwriters in these kinds of bands, I can’t help but feel a disconnect between what Gibbard wants to communicate and how the rest of his band wants to dress it up. Put quite simply, they did some really fun things with the wrong set of songs. And I might even give a lot of these songs good grades because I do genuinely enjoy listening to them, but when I think about how it all hangs together as an album, Kintsugi feels like a bit of a non-event.
1. No Room in Frame
Things get off to a rather odd start with the faint sound of blurting keyboards that vaguely resemble horns – it sounds like something you’d hear in the margins of a Sufjan Stevens record, but soon enough the beat kicks in and it all starts to make sense. Programmed, syncopated drums give this song a slight 80s feel, but they integrate rather well with the fluid, melodic guitars, so it’s a recipe that I can appreciate overall, even if it’s the soundtrack to the saddest roadtrip ever. See, at one point the band’s van broke down in Coalinga, California, which is probably one of the saddest middle-of-nowhere places in the Central Valley, and Gibbard decided that one day he’d name-check this place that he hoped never to return to. it’s really a bit of pretext for his mixed emotions about commuting to and from L.A., the residence of someone he loves who seems to keep him at a distance. The title turns out to be a bit of a clever metaphor as he describes her as having more fame than him and perhaps a little bit of an ego, and symbolically speaking, there isn’t enough room for a camera to fit both of their personalities into the same shot. As much as I usually enjoy lyrical dissonance, I’m a bit uneasy at how weird of a fit the playful, chugging guitars in the chorus are for the sad admission that he was just in the way of her stardom the entire time, especially when the song ends with a sigh of resignation: “And we will both go on to get lonely with someone else.” Despite the sharp contrast between lyrics and sound, though, it’s a pretty darn good song.
2. Black Sun
The first single from the record is just about as misleading as it is cathartic, at least once you have the patience to see where the band’s going with it. Most of the song is surprisingly robotic, chugging along on its chunky mid-tempo beat with its keyboards all aglow and its guitars repeating a rather sterile and simple sequence of finger-picked chords. Gibbard’s crammed some of his most esoteric, purposefully self-contradictory lyrics in here, which is fitting considering how baffled he is at how such as beautiful and warm sight as the sun can also be so cruel and unforgiving. He sounds so downtrodden at times that you wonder how the heck this could ever be a single, and yet there’s something strangely alluring, even catchy, about the way it slowly marches through its CGI-rendered desert of sounds. The real payoff comes in the bridge, when right out of nowhere, Chris Walla unleashes a guitar solo that I can only describe as downright dirty. The effect is similar to Muse‘s “Madness” in terms of how radically it changes my perception of an otherwise minimalistic song, even if the two songs have little in common stylistically. It really sets the song on fire, and though I’m mildly disappointed that it comes to a relatively calm ending once the guitars die down, it’s still one of my favorite moments on the album – and ultimately one of my favorite Death Cab songs overall.
3. The Ghosts of Beverly Drive
When I say that there ain’t nothing wrong with an indie rock band being poppy and catchy, it’s tracks like this that come to mind, where they come up with such killer hooks that there’s just no way I can argue. This is definitely the “You Are a Tourist” of this album, though I’d say it’s even more upbeat, despite the sad lyrics about a man’s inability to get over someone and his tendency to keep returning to the “scenes of these crimes” where the drama between him and an ex-lover played out. Of course since we’re talking about a celebrity couple, Beverly Hills is as good a backdrop as any for a lot of those now painful memories that live on in Gibbard’s mind, as if the past is some sort of a metaphysical gated community that won’t let him back in. Despite all of that, I can’t get over how downright triumphant this song’s guitar riffs and its cute little one-off samples and programming effects make it seem to be. If you’re not singing “I don’t know why, I don’t know why!” over and over in your head for the rest of the day after hearing this one a few times, then you’ve certainly got a lot more willpower than I do.
4. Little Wanderer
I have a hard time describing this song musically other than to say it’s middle-of-the-road pop/rock. it is a little more guitar driven than some of the previous tracks, but everything feels sort of grey and mushy, the melody doesn’t really stick in my head, and the chorus seems uncharacteristically weak, which is a problem since for most of this album, that’s the sort of thing the band is relying on to catch our attention. Mood-wise, I think they get it right even if the consequence isn’t a terribly interesting listen. Ben’s all alone back home, Skyping with his lover as she gallivants across the globe to exotic places like Tokyo and Paris. He’s lonely while she’s having a blast, and he uses the spotty internet connection thwarting the communication between them as a metaphor for the state of their relationship. It’s a bit goofy referring to stuff like instant messenger in a song, but that’s just Gibbard’s writing style, I guess – ripped straight from the diary pages. I think the real reason this one doesn’t grab me is because of the word “little”. it’s sort of dismissive, calling her “little wanderer”, even if he intends for it to be a cutesy term of affection, because the implication seems to be “Oh, you’re out exploring the world, isn’t that quaint? I know you’ll come back to the real meaning of your life when you get all that curiosity out of your system.” I’m probably reading too much into it, but it just sort of feels like the character in this song (even if I assume it’s not specifically about Gibbard and his ex-wife) is a bit needy, to the point where he’s blinded by the need for companionship and can’t appreciate her needs. I may be reading it wrong, but the effect is that I listen to the song and I want to root for the wanderer to keep wandering instead.
5. You’ve Haunted Me All My Life
I’ve noticed that the front half of this album gets progressively more slow and sparse after plateauing at “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive”. This song is appropriately downbeat, serving as a bridge between the poppier material before it and the very quiet song that follows it. There’s a deep sadness inherent in the slow acoustic riff that repeats throughout this song, which grabs me right away, but then I find myself getting frustrated as the song slowly unfolds that they don’t ultimately do anything more climactic with it. It just sort of drags along. I suppose that contributes to the downright defeated atmosphere, but I still feel like they could have tried a little harder with this one. Lyrically, Gibbard is on point, and I can actually really relate to what he’s singing about here. He feels eluded by the concept of lasting love, and he sings to a woman who might be one of those old flames that got away, or who might only be an abstract concept in his mind – the lover he can keep for a lifetime rather than just having fun for a few months or years and then parting ways. The chorus says it all in the only line that isn’t just a repetition of the title: “You are the mistress I can’t make a wife”. What is it with us men always being drawn to something or someone we know we can’t have, or at least can’t keep?
6. Hold No Guns
I have to say, I’m not a big fan of Gibbard in solo ballad mode. There’s little here other than him softly fingerpicking an acoustic guitar, and it just seems sort of faint and flat, like the song doesn’t really want my attention. It’s meant as a soft-spoken aopology to someone he scared off, asking why she’s running away because he’s shown absolutely no hostility to her. That’s at least what I take from the awkward phrasing, “My hands hold no guns”. He paints them both as losers due to her decision to split up the relationship, and despite his insistence that he has no ill will toward her, the song is kind of passive-aggressive in the second verse: “Darling, though you may pretend/Pretend that you are selfless/You break with but the slightest bend/And it leaves you lost and helpless.” He basically goes on to imply that no one else will stick around long enough to truly care for her the next time she goes through something difficult. (This might give some insights into why he’s having difficulty staying in a relationship. Just sayin’.)
7. Everything’s a Ceiling
Another rather confusing metaphor drives this song, which is the beginning of another upbeat trilogy of songs to open the album’s back half. He’s using that old idea of digging a hole straight through the center of the Earth (until you come out in China or wherever – he doesn’t specify) as an analogy for a relationship in which two people agreed to dig deeper and deeper together, until one them suddenly decided to climb back to the surface and pull up the ladder, leaving him stranded. So apparently, “When you’re so far beneath the floor, everything’s a ceiling.” Except, wouldn’t it just be a hole in the ground above you? It’s not covered. And he refers to dim sunlight shining into the hole into the second verse, and… OK, clearly I’m taking this too literally. It’s not great songwriting, is what I’m saying. Musically, it’s up-tempo and its melody is reasonably catchy, but the presence of keyboards and immaculately produced drum programming and so forth seems so clean and tidy here that it’s downright overbearing. I wouldn’t mind this with some bands, but by Death Cab standards… I don’t know, it just sounds a bit too inorganic, if that makes any sense.
8. Good Help (Is Hard to Find)
I could just as easily imply the “inorganic” complaint to the next two songs as well, if I wanted to. The thing is, these songs do genuinely grab my attention; I remember how the melody goes later on and what they’re about, which is more than I can say for “Ceiling”. This one is a track that I can tell a lot of people will ridicule, because it’s so upbeat and danceable that it’s completely out of place with the rest of the record. The clap-happy rhythm and the guitar licks are somewhere in the neighborhood of “Everyday is a Winding Road” by freakin’ Sheryl Crow, if you can believe that. (A much less well-known, but also uncharacteristically dance-y and kinda goofy song by Jimmy Eat World called “Here It Goes” also comes to mind.) Gibbard does a sudden swerve from the album’s usual subject matter and takes a stab at wry social commentary, basically summing up the first world problem of not being able to find enough “yes men” to surround yourself with and do your bidding. I’m pretty sure he’s going for wry humor here, given the light tone of the song. I can’t knock it; it’s a lot of fun and I appreciate the subtly sarcastic attitude. It’s just 100% out of place, on this or any Death Cab for Cutie album. It’s enough to make me wonder if the song is a refugee from a second Postal Service project that never got off the ground. But to the band’s credit, they have a lot of fun with the guitars and all of the various processing and delay effects that they can add to them. If they play this one live, I kinda hope a round of line dancing breaks out.
9. El Dorado
This might be the best case of a song that superficially, I love listening to, but when I think about the different components that went into making the song, I get a little frustrated. The guitar riff that opens this one is deliciously dark, and it sets a stormy atmosphere for the rather jaded lyric that follows it. So far, so good. But then the drums come in and they are just so processed and so cluttered that, while I certainly get swept up in its energetic rhythm, it feels like it really dulls the impact of the song’s mood. What Gibbard is basically saying here, in perhaps the most transparent dig at his ex out of any track on the album, is that she found her fame amidst all the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and she basically disappeared into that mythical golden city without giving him so much as a second thought, and now he’s trapped there outside the gates, forgotten. He tried to be altruistic about it and get excited for her, but he just couldn’t fake it. It’s a bit on the mean-spirited side, but it’s also a very powerful and honest lyric, so I don’t know, it just feels like they could have left out some of the fun and quirky beats and sound effects, and given the intended mood of the song a chance to come to the forefront, y’know? Then again, if they did, would I remember the song and look forward to hearing it as much as I typically do? Because this is the last track out of the eleven that truly piques my interest.
OK, maybe I was wrong, because this song sure sounds like a petty potshot at Ms. Deschanel. I hadn’t really thought about it until I looked closer at the lyrics, but he’s rather cynically deconstructing a person who counts on her youth and naivete to win favor with the world around her, implying that not everyone’s gonna love her so much when her good looks and perky innocence fade over time. Again, I think this illustrates a problem with the writer more so than the character he’s writing about. It almost makes me wonder if there were deeper aspects to her personality that he never noticed or if his reasons for being attracted to her were superficial in the first place, leading him to assume that’s all there is for others to like about her. To be fair, I have no idea what their marriage was like or why they split up. I’m just going with the feeling I get from listening to these songs, and I feel like they may be communicating things rather poorly if the end result is that I end up siding against the writer rather than with him. Regardless, I rarely ever pay much attention to this song, because I tend to get irrationally annoyed with it when I do. There’s this one-note backing vocal that repeats “la la la la” throughout the entire thing, and it gets old fast, and overshadows whatever creative energy the band might have otherwise put into the song, making it feel more like a toddler pestering his mother every five seconds than anything I’d enjoy listening to. I get that it’s supposed to be a rhythmic element, but every so often the band seems to be off the count, which is a simple 4/4, so they really have no excuse. It ruins whatever sense of groove they’ve worked to establish by repeating that annoying sample all the way through.
11. Binary Sea
The closing song is, rather predictably, another ballad that showcases Gibbard and a lone instrument – in this case the piano. This time you can still hear the rest of the band in the background, but they don’t provide much aside from a simple rhythm section and some slight electronic ambiance. Gibbard could sing it as a true solo number and it’d be no worse for the wear. Like “Hold No Guns”, he’s made the mistake of basing this solo spotlight moment on a not-terribly-compelling melody, so the song just sort of floats around in this grey murk, dulling the impact of beautifully written sentiments like “If there is no document/We cannot build our monument/So look into the lens and I’ll/Make sure this moment never dies.” I really like that idea, of capturing a moment in time and space, in this case on digital media, to make sure those zeroes and ones preserve what we might otherwise forget. It seems to be a song of acceptance, because even though he’s still bitter over getting dumped, he doesn’t want to burn all the evidence that the relationship ever happened. I think that’s at least a healthy starting point. You have to remember what you’ve been through, even if it sucks, because you learn from it. It’s just too bad that this moment of relative peace and clarity comes in the midst of an otherwise boring song.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
No Room in Frame $1.50
Black Sun $1.75
The Ghosts of Beverly Drive $2
Little Wanderer $.50
You’ve Haunted Me All My Life $.75
Hold No Guns –$.25
Everything’s a Ceiling $.50
Good Help (Is Hard to Find) $1.50
El Dorado $1.25
Binary Sea $.50
Ben Gibbard: Lead vocals, guitars, piano
Nick Harmer: Bass, backing vocals
Jason McGerr: Drums, percussion
Chris Walla: Guitars, piano, keyboards, backing vocals (left after this recording)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: