By Gus Edelen O’Brien
CatlinSpeak (Portland, Oregon)
“Kintsugi” is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted with gold, and the name is in a way a metaphor for Death Cab For Cutie’s loss of a band member. Chris Walla, one of Death Cab For Cutie’s lead guitarists and songwriters, has left the band, and left behind cracks that even golden lacquer can’t piece back together. Ben Gibbard and Co, march on without him however, with an album that hides behind blurred words and straight faces.
The album stems from hardship in Gibbard’s life, including his divorce from actress and singer-songwriter Zooey Deschanel. The first song, “No Room In Frame,” addresses how her screen life took over her personal life and ruined their relationship. “No Room In Frame” is Classic Death Cab For Cutie, but lacks the wide-eyed starcrossed tempo that governed albums like “Transatlanticism” and “Plans.” Kintsugi upholds some of Death Cab’s better qualities, if diminished.
The songwriting, something so central to past DCFC albums, seems faded. The lyrics seem almost Coldplay-like in their ability to say nothing at all, but still sound like something important. “Ingenue” shows Death Cab For Cutie using one of the most repeated lyrical storylines of all time, the “small town blues.” “And escape from this town/Before your sand runs out.” The song shows a band that once made great weepy ballads about long distance relationships conforming to song cliches about the simplest of themes.
Death Cab For Cutie has always felt like a band without a defining sound. Ben Gibbard sounds like pretty much every other Indie-Mope band and there is no defining rhythm or rhyme that makes them different. What made them different in the past was their ability to write impossibly pretty ballads and sound genuinely sad. Gibbard has every reason to be sad in “Kintsugi”, but no song feels like its channels his feelings about his divorce or his friend leaving the band. Instead the songs feels forced, as if after the divorce he felt it was his duty to record an album about his pain, and nothing surfaced.
The album, for the most part, remains staid. No innovation of sound or songwriting, and after a while the tracks blend together and the album becomes dreary. The storytelling itself is much more interesting than the lyrics or song writing, and that is not saying much for a band which usually spouts gorgeous lyrics even on their worse tracks.
Death Cab For Cutie’s attempts to return to form feel inadequate. Perhaps they have lost something more important than their guitar player in these last few years. Maybe they’ve lost the innocence and sadness that made them worth listening to to begin with.
Catlin Gabel Grade: Satisfactory