I got hooked on Death Cab for Cutie ever since its last album, “Codes and Keys,” released in 2011. Four years have come and gone though, and now the indie band is back with its latest album, “Kintsugi,” hoping to perhaps attract Billboard success while giving fans the sound they enjoy.
However, a lot has changed for Death Cab for Cutie in the four years since “Codes and Keys.” In 2011, Death Cab creator, lead vocalist and lead guitarist Ben Gibbard divorced Zooey Deschanel after a short 3-year stint. The band’s lead guitarist and producer Chris Walla has also left, an evolving decision that finalized just months before the new album’s release. Meanwhile, Gibbard briefly revived The Postal Service, one of his pet projects, in 2013 before killing it later that year. Yet Death Cab has wavered its storms and Gibbard is still steering the ship. It’s clear “Kintsugi” is also emerging out of that storm’s wake, and what is more or less musical and personal chaos.
“Kintsugi,” by name, is about appreciating destruction—the album title refers to a Japanese art form centered on repairing broken pottery with a glue mixed with powdered gold, expressing the beauty of fault rather than trying to hide away the cracks. The album is also a nod to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” with a bit of added indie flair. It poses the questions, “What will Death Cab do without a core member?” and, “How will it make sense and beauty out of this chaotic recent history?” But ultimately, where I thought I saw opportunities for Death Cab for Cutie’s new album to soar to new heights, it only glides; “Kintsugi” is just another indie lovesick album that’s from a band not really so indie anymore and perhaps starting to fall apart.
If there’s a voice I’d identify “Kintsugi” with, it’s one with a midlife crisis desperately trying to be a tourist in parts unknown. It dabbles in a slew of places and musical styles, thinking about Tokyo and L.A. with bits of electronica and pop thrown in for good measure. It’s a stark contrast to the homeliness I felt in “Codes and Keys,” an album whose voice was like a seasoned commuter—perhaps even from the Hudson Valley—as they reflect during a long train ride. Songs like “Portable Television” and “You’re a Tourist” felt personal and comfortable.
“Kintsugi” is reflective too, but it isn’t a comfortable reflection—it’s tough and tired, jagged with heavy guitar riffs in the album’s anthem “Black Sun” and acoustic revelation in “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life.” Everything else feels like it revolves around these songs, with more or less the same distrust of a certain significant other. Gibbard has said before he doesn’t want listeners to think this is about real life experiences, but he isn’t doing enough to prove otherwise.
I suppose what I find most disappointing in “Kintsugi” is that the album shifts closer to the norm rather than away from it. In the few times that the sound is not the typical vibe you’d come to expect from a band like Death Cab, what you have is something like The Black Keys. Don’t get me wrong, I like The Black Keys, but Gibbard expressed an interest in change with this album; he should leave “Lonely Boy” to those who write and sing it best. I’m not saying he’s just trying to get hits on Billboard, but it feels like they’re not taking risks. Death Cab for Cutie is supposedly free, but their sound is still as imprisoned as ever.
In an interview with the Seattle Times, Gibbard noted, regarding the departure of Walla, that, “17 years in, we could kind of figure out how to move on.” I like Death Cab for Cutie, but it’s lovesickness is stifling innovation. This doesn’t feel like the anthematic goodbye to Walla I wanted. You’ll like it if you already like Death Cab for Cutie, but with so much change in the last few years, “Kintsugi” was a chance at evolution for the band. What we get instead is just another lovesick album.