For the title of its eighth full-length album, Death Cab for Cutie

For the title of its eighth full-length album, Death Cab for Cutie

  • Tuesday, March 31, 2015 11:46am
  • Music

For the title of its eighth full-length album, Death Cab for Cutie chose a word ripe for interpretation. Kintsugi, after all, is the ancient Japanese art of rebuilding works of pottery from their fractured parts—an apt description for a band that seems, with each album, to be putting back together the pieces of a broken heart. But it’s also fitting for a band that, prior to this album’s release, announced that it would be losing one of its most integral parts, guitarist and producer Chris Walla (though Walla is featured throughout the album). In keeping with the theme, we thought it would be appropriate to have something of a fractured review of the album. So we asked nine students in the winter session of the Vera Project’s Writing About Music workshop—which is taught by myself and Vera boardmember Chris Nelson—to take on the album, track by track. The songs were randomly selected, and the students weren’t allowed to share notes. Here’s what they had to say. -Mark Baumgarten, Editor-in-Chief

“No Room in Frame”

9/10Death Cab for Cutie’s new album, Kintsugi, kicks off with this, a catchy song worthy of a movie soundtrack. The lyrics are forward-moving, placing the listener securely in a car driving away, sentimental flashbacks fading in and out. “This highway lived in my mind,” Gibbard sings. “It takes me back to the place that made me.” A great way to start things off. KELSEY CREEL

“Black Sun”

10/10A pristine Chris Walla riff drives this song, recalling the sound of the band’s early, brilliant album, We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes. That riff also serves as a reminder of what is lost with Walla’s departure. Death Cab has always had a knack for etching out delightfully wistful pop songs, and this track ranks high in its eight-album catalog, a tame, unobtrusive number that could easily fill arenas with weeping fans. “Black Sun” is the quiet pinnacle of the album, and evidence that the band has not lost touch with what got them here. R.P. LEWIS

“The Ghosts of Beverly Drive”

8/10Ben Gibbard is conceding defeat, but this is nothing new. Gibbard customarily surrenders several times on each of this band’s albums. On “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive,” the singer outlines the history of a collapse, and the inevitable reflection that accompanies it. He channels a sadness that is distinct to Los Angeles, the location of the song’s titular street, where the singer lived during his short marriage to actor Zooey Deschanel. Synthesizer creeps around the edges of the song while Walla’s familiar guitar tone conveys the feeling that guides the band’s earlier efforts. Gibbard pleads “Please work with what is left” as the golden cracks begin to reveal themselves. The beauty lies in the breakage. R.P. LEWIS

“Little Wanderer”

6/10Overlain with sorrowful, twangy guitar, “Little Wanderer” sketches the onerous attempt to keep a love alive from thousands of miles apart. Gibbard’s iconic melancholy voice contains a sparkle of optimism and pride as he sings “You’re my wanderer, little wander.” However, the sprinkle of sanguinity is rinsed over with anxious counters (“Won’t you wander back to me”). As he tells of pictures delivered straight from his lover’s window abroad, Gibbard’s characteristically pensive lyrics, dusted with simplistic drum and bass, unveil unrelenting longing for a love several time zones away. SYDNEY ROOT

“You’ve Haunted Me All My Life”

7/10This song is a painful reminder of heartbreak and sorrow, Gibbard’s feelings coming through in moving lyrics. “You’ve haunted me all my life,” he sings. “Through endless days and countless nights.” The sweet, slow sounds of a single guitar in the beginning are soon combined with a soothing harmony as he sings, “You’re always out of reach when I’m in pursuit.” It’s an easy sentiment to relate to. Who has not felt at some point that desire for something that is just out of reach? By this point in the album, suffering and misery have emerged as central themes, comfortable territory for the Seattle band. MARY GARNER

“Hold No Guns” 5/10The plucking strings of an acoustic guitar set the stage for Gibbard’s singing on this track, his pitch starting out low then gradually getting higher, then slowly descending back down again. He sings that “The counsel’s combing through our debris, for the treasures we never buried,” but the words get lost in the tedious repetition of that guitar. Gibbard is his most vulnerable here, letting his guard down when he sings heartbreaking lines like, “My love, why do you run?/For my hands hold no guns.” More impactful on the page than in this monotonous arrangement, perhaps this song would be served better by silence, read simply as poem. CHRISTINE MAGGI

“Everything’s a Ceiling,”

3/10This song starts off with decent energy as the synth sounds give way to a rolling guitar and backing vocals, blanketing the listener in a swelling wall of sound. That’s fine if you’re trying to be Coldplay, but it seems off-brand for Death Cab, more at home in the arena than in the bedroom. Add in lazy rhyming couplets—“What am I supposed to do. I’m calling out to you/You’re miles away it’s true, digging for someone new”—and you have a track that should have been left on the cutting-room floor. BRAD HALASZ

“Good Help (Is So Hard to Find)”

8/10One of the most upbeat songs we’ve heard from Death Cab for Cutie, this energetic pop track channels the sound of Gibbard’s other hugely popular project, The Postal Service. The band has traded in the guitar for synth beats, while sticking to the usual, contemplative lyricism for which it is known. Nonetheless, the upbeat track still seems a bit odd on this largely downtrodden album. ANDREA AGUILAR

“El Dorado” 7/10Seemingly written for the final credits of Gibbard’s love story, “El Dorado” is the sound of cracks mending, the title recalling a mythical city of gold, a metaphor for the ultimate prize. The journey begins with a conversely melancholic and optimistic guitar chord progression, giving way to rapidly beating drums that prove Death Cab’s ability to capture the light at the end of the tunnel. This song openly illustrates the divorce from the Hollywood lifestyle into which Gibbard married. “Seems you finally found . . . El Dorado,” Gibbard sings, “over in Culver City shining bright, name in lights.” But in a show of acceptance, perhaps resignation, he lets his that light go: “As you slip away behind the gates, behind the gate.” ERINN J. HALE

“Ingenue” 4/10Arena-rock drums mix with a yearning melody, handclaps, and lyrics that are earnest and obviously personal here, a natural progression for this album. The song builds pleasingly thoughout, with glacial layers of shimmering guitars and Gibbards’ intoned “la-la” vocal drone in the background like a buzz of anticipation. When the triumphant guitar climax kicks in (after a truly stadium-worthy drum fill), it’s like the sun finally bursting through the clouds. But the song’s elation belies its lyrics, in which Gibbard essentially mansplains “the currency” of being a young, pretty woman whose fate is to grow old (and worthless). MELISSA JONG

“Binary Sea” 8/10Applying the final stitch to Gibbards’s emotional fragments is “Binary Sea,” an exposition of a life broadcast through social media. “Zeros and ones, patterns appear,” he sings. “They’ll prove to all that we were here.” Congruent with the overarching themes of Kintsugi, the claims are personal, pointing to a cause of his failed marriage. “Oh, Atlas could not stay engaged/Was more distracted every day,” he sings over the lo-fi echoes of a piano. “You slowly fell into disarray.” Although Gibbard trips over forced lyrics, he is stalwart in the pursuit of repair. Yet the question remains: Is Kintsugi about mending the self or about cobbling together the memories of a pedestaled relationship? “If there is no document, we cannot build our monument,” he sings. Either way, the story feels complete as the album fades out into eerie cosmic ambience. ERINN J. HALE

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