Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
If Death Cab For Cutie's 17-year career has focused on a single overarching theme, it's the process of growing up: fumbling for connection, finding oneself, feeling out the ways human beings do and don't settle into their own skin. On a string of marvelous records that span the '00s, and perhaps most famously on 2003's Transatlanticism, singer Ben Gibbard has told a thoughtfully worded coming-of-age story, soundtracked by the liltingly sweet, impeccably constructed pop-rock sounds of multi-instrumentalist/producer Chris Walla, bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr.
But bands can only credibly sing of youth in the present tense for so long. So for Death Cab For Cutie, all those big emotions of early adulthood — the inflated meaning of tiny gestures, the hunger of long-distance longing — have naturally given way to more muted and nuanced songs about the many rebuilding processes of early middle age. These are guys who've seen firsthand that adulthood can mean divorce and drifting apart; in fact, most pressingly for their professional future, Walla himself decided to leave the group last year.
Though this is the first Death Cab record Walla didn't produce, he does perform on Kintsugi, the band's eighth album. That title is telling: It refers to the Japanese art of fixing fragmented ceramics with precious metals, giving broken art more value than it had when it was whole. Which, in turn, speaks to a sensible shift in Death Cab For Cutie's perspective. Self-discovery has given way to self-repair, in ways that stay true to the voices involved and bode well for the band's future, even without Walla.
Compared to its predecessors, Kintsugi feels sparer and simpler, with a muted quality to match song titles like "You've Haunted Me All My Life" and "The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive." It's also very clearly a breakup record, chronicling with a fair amount of specificity the dissolution of Gibbard's marriage to Zooey Deschanel. The story he chooses to tell is one of a relationship tarred by her stardom ("Was I in your way when the cameras turned to face you? / No room in frame for two"), and by the frustrations of a Los Angeles he's never embraced.
That said, these songs — and songs in general, really — work best when they aren't contextualized in too much literal detail. Kintsugi is better viewed as an album about drifting apart, by a band trying to hold itself together, and that's far more universal than any given Hollywood love story gone wrong. As softly tuneful as ever, Death Cab For Cutie chronicles the glum immediate aftermath of survival. What comes next, most likely, is the blush of renewal that follows so many doldrums of mid-stage adulthood. After all, as long as we're alive, we never really stop coming of age, and Death Cab For Cutie's members know that. It's nice to have them along for the ride.