Everybody leaves Ben Gibbard. It’s the very crutch of his art. Fittingly, then, that Death Cab For Cutie’s eighth album, Kintsugi, arrives in the aftermath of his divorce to New Girl Zooey Deschanel and, more recently, the departure of longtime member and producer, Chris Walla. Those twin departures can be read on every song. Their last album was 2011’s Codes And Keys.
Kintsugi opens with promise. “No Room In Frame” grabs the reins with a polished version of the group’s past. Ben Gibbard does his usual straightforward moping sneer in climbing reverb. The drums shuffle the song along through each subtle transition.
When I heard the album’s first single, “Black Sun,” I was filled with hope for the upcoming full-length. The song spreads out with a stuttering drum beat and Walla dropping in heavy doses of orbital keyboard. There is an extra tinge of hopelessness, of darkness here that hasn’t quite been heard from Death Cab. Most of their songs’ emotion stems from sadness, regret, loneliness, but never do they creep into the darker flip side of those emotions, vengeance and despair. Basically, it’s a Death Cab song, but with all the sap cut out.
Walla, who has been at the helm of Death Cab with Gibbard for 17 years, quit after the recording of Kintsugi was finished. As he makes his exit, Walla shows on “Black Sun” how this band could evolve into a tighter, more exploratory rock group. Unfortunately, the rest of the album follows the group’s recent two-album (or so) decline.
“Little Wanderer” should have been passed onto Josh Groban. (You still would’ve been paid, Ben.) Sounds like Gibbard lost his Internet connection and now misses some girl. Maybe the riff sat unused on a hard-drive and they forced it into this very skippable song. It’s a weak sequence of verse, chorus, verse, chorus. But, somehow it’s the only song from this album to get stuck on the track-mill in my head.
“The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive” and “Everything’s A Ceiling” are just flat out boring compositions. Gibbard, though, still nails the tragedy of life’s constant creation of distance from everything you know and love on the spare acoustic number, “Hold No Guns.”
Kintsugi finally finds a groove on “Good Help (Is So Hard To Find).” The drums and bass swivel to a disco beat while Gibbard plays guitar like he’s in the Dire Straits. Drummer Jason McGerr doubles down on “El Dorado” with a pummeling beat while Gibbard’s voice floats up into the California sun.
The final song, “Binary Sea,” plays on the waves of piano keys and sounds like a B-side from Transatlanticism, the album that continues to stand as Death Cab’s artistic peak. Kintsugi looks up at it and has to quint only a little to see it.