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Review: Death Cab for Cutie Navigate Chilly Waters on ‘Kintsugi’

death cab for cutie
SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: March 31, 2015
Label: Atlantic

“There is beauty in a failure,” Ben Gibbard sings pensively on “Black Sun,” the lead single from Death Cab for Cutie’s eighth studio album, Kintsugi. The frontman has always been nothing if not articulate, a quality he’s demonstrated in spades on some of his band’s earliest — and most earnest — releases (specifically 2000’s gently pining We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes and 2001’s more extroverted The Photo Album).

More than a decade after those successes, the heavy-hearted singer has another storage unit of troubles to process: Not just his 2012 divorce from actress Zooey Deschanel, but also the band’s now-departed guitarist and longtime producer, Chris Walla — these problems are not the anatomical particulars of “fumbling to make contact” in Gibbard’s “grey subcompact.” One would think that separating from one of pop culture’s most adored china dolls would provide enough material to fill a few records, but unlike Death Cab’s finest work, Gibbard’s melancholia does not offer enough verve to lift Kintsugi out of the sonic doldrums.

In many ways, Kintsugi returns to the same territory that Death Cab has covered, with diminishing returns, since 2005’s Plans: now-routine, diet-U2 production (despite this being their first LP with an outsider, Rich Costey, at the helm); melodies caught between easy-listening and alt-pop marketed expressly for the Imagine Dragons crowd (“No Room in Frame,” “Black Sun”); and a stream of bummed-nice-guy lyrics (“And there’s a flaw in my heart’s design / For I keep trying to make you mine”) engineered to make a single tear fall.

Right before 2011’s spacious Codes and Keys, Gibbard told SPIN that he was making a conscious effort to disassociate his words with his personal life, saying, “Everything I write is reflective of my own life and the lives of those people around me. They reflect the conversations you have and the rumblings of life around you. But when somebody gets married, people assume that they’re going to get a certain thing out of an album.”

That sentiment hasn’t held true: On Kintsugi, Gibbard’s pain stems from his “Little Wanderer,” who, despite sending him pictures of Paris and Tokyo and chatting with him over messenger, won’t “wander back” to him. Long-distance relationships can be a drain, but the song’s heavy-lidded tempo is as aimless as its subject, despite the gloomy, dissonant chords that bring to mind the Cure’s “Lullaby.”

The set’s opener, “No Room in Frame,” suffers from the same ailment. Even though Gibbard expertly communicates feeling uneasy with a partner’s, um, penchant for the spotlight (“Was I in your way / When the cameras turned to face you?”), the vaporous guitars never click into place, opting instead to waver in mid-tempo purgatory.

With the bulk of these tracks, Walla’s curious, exploratory strums offer enough whiffs of radio-ready excitement to keep the ship afloat, especially on the power-pop ballad “Good Help (Is So Hard to Find)” and the similarly springy “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive.” But Gibbard’s downcast verses keep Kintsugi all too safely anchored and docked.