Death Cab For Cutie is quickly approaching the two-decade milestone, and with that comes the weight of legacy. The act has served as a major representative of millennial indie rock, with two or three seminal records well over a decade old and one on the brink (2005’s major label Plans). For years now, Death Cab has set the bar for a very distinct brand of professional and confessional indie music. From haunting and minimalist echoes of youth (2000’s We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes) to cathartic, arena-worthy emo rock (2003’s classic Transatlanticism), to glossy, macabre and mature balladry (Plans), Death Cab has compiled a bildungsroman of sensitivity and surprising grace while maintaining one of the most consistently great discographies in indie rock.
So how does one bring a new record into the conversation with all-time favorites? How can I talk about Kintsugi, the band’s eighth studio album, in the same breath as Transatlanticism, a record with over 12 years of personal and musical history behind it? The easy answer is that I can’t. I can’t hold Kintsugi opener “No Room In Frame” up to Transatlanticism opener “The New Year” with a straight face, with any real insight to be had. I can’t seriously attempt to compare one of the best album climaxes I’ve ever heard (the one-two-three punch of “Tiny Vessels,” “Transatlanticism,” and “Passenger Seat”) to any selection of this new record. There’s no contest, and at this point there honestly never could be. The only question I can answer, in the immediate wake of release, is whether or not Kintsugi is a good record. Not ignoring the legacy of a great band, but acknowledging the impossibility of the task of one-on-one comparison.
With all of this in mind, I can now confidently say this: Kintsugi, is a great record. Kintsugi simultaneously balances all of the most admired aspects of the band’s discography while teetering on the edge of new territory. The band’s last record with long time member Chris Walla and the first without Walla as producer, Kintsugi is a record of transition, both in content and execution.
After the nervous bliss of 2011’s mildly received Codes and Keys, Kintsugi feels like a return to more depressing subject matter. Throughout the record, relationships crumble and fade away, homes are abandoned and reestablished, grey hairs appear and fall out. The aged character of this record suits the band nicely—indeed, Death Cab has always seemed to have an old soul, level-headed but constantly aching.
Kintsugi is an art form that reconstructs broken artifacts, lining the cracks with gold. This idea pervades the record, a constant sense that things have fallen apart for the good of better reassembly. This is a record that does not dwell, but tries to move on. Opener “No Room In Frame,” in keeping with this theme, is a driving song, maintaining songwriter Ben Gibbard’s affinity for Kerouac-like tales of fleeing. “I disappear like a trend/in the hum of the five in the early morning,” he delivers bouncily over meandering electronics and deliberate guitar plucks. This stellar reintroduction is an affirmation of the relevance of self-discovery well into adulthood, a reminder to recognize one’s self and act in accordance (“how can I stay in the sun when the rain flows all through my veins/it’s true”).
While Walla’s production work has pushed this band to its greatest heights over the past twenty years, the introduction of new producer Rich Costey into the mix really helped shake off any sense of staleness. This is especially evident on dancy standout “Good Help (Is So Hard To Find),” which sports a kind of bouncy indie pop reminiscent of The 1975. Meanwhile, “Little Wanderer” is light and breezy while “Hold No Guns” is intimate and isolated. The range of texture on Kintsugi is impressive, the record still maintaining a solid sense of flow (despite a little clunkiness toward the middle—the transition from “Hold No Guns” to the harsh ‘80s synth of “Everything’s A Ceiling” is rather abrupt).
The movement-inducing style of “Good Help” and “Everything’s A Ceiling” marks new territory for the band, but much of this record is a comforting point of balance struck between Death Cab’s past stylistic ventures. Lead single “Black Sun” recalls “Narrow Stairs” in its biting guitar solo and lyrical darkness, but incorporates Codes and Keys‘s carefully articulated use of electronics and tidy production. “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life” sounds like an extension of some of Plans mid-album cuts, while closer “Binary Sea” plays as a less reactive version of Transatlanticism’s more majestic piano-led numbers. This fine-tuning never feels like a cheap retread, however. Instead, it comes off as reflective of a journey so far, a conscious admission of a checkpoint reached. With a core member leaving for good, it feels like an important and well-deserved wrapping-up of an era.
However, this is a wrapping-up in full awareness of another act to follow. The final lines of the record reflect this awareness of legacy and hopefulness for great music to come: “lean in close, and lend an ear/there’s something brilliant bound to happen here.” After years of creating great music, Death Cab has secured its position as a solid, trusted institution of indie rock. Kintsugi, as a record of transition, admits this and promises to follow through in the future. In the meantime, it’s just another great entry into a wonderful body of work. Who knows, maybe history will treat it as kindly as its most revered predecessors.
NOTE: This article was originally published in The Minaret.