The first words on Death Cab For Cutie’s new album Kintsugi are “I don’t know where to begin.” Despite ever-expanding production budgets, additional instrumentation, and the sonic explorations that come with a maturing band, the voice and lyrics of singer Ben Gibbard have always kept a personal, grounded intimacy to the music. That changed somewhat with the band’s last record, 2011’s Codes And Keys, where less-confessional lyrics and a more austere vibe left some fans cold. But the more electronic-tinged soundscapes suggested new avenues for a band that had honed its older sound to perhaps too comfortable a point.
Kintsugi is very much a companion piece to Codes And Keys, but where that album sounded like a group at ease with some emotional distance, the new record brings back the heartache and longing in a big way. It blends the newer sounds of the group’s recent output with the warmth and accessibility of its earlier work, which makes for a fine cocktail. It would be easy to chalk some of this up to Kintsugi being the first Death Cab record since Gibbard’s divorce from Zooey Deschanel. Tracks like “Hold No Guns” and opener “No Room In Frame,” which mourn failed relationships and explore what it means to scare off a potential partner, feel soul-baring in a big way.
Musically, the band continues along the trail forged by Codes And Keys, only more so. Electronic flourishes and synth-sampling layers shoulder an even greater share of the song structures, to the point where a good chunk of the record could be mistaken for an ’80s pop-rock album. Death Cab For Cutie now sounds like the 21st-century version of Genesis, in a good way. The back half of the record starts off with “Everything’s A Ceiling,” where the synths kick in full-bore, giving an old-fashioned song an old-fashioned musicality. On that track, and subsequent numbers like “Good Help,” the guitars shimmer and soar, as spacey notes held for moments on end are nested comfortably alongside numerous jangly riffs. It’s as though The Edge was giving Chris Walla notes, the guitar sometimes chugging along with a more rhythmic foundation than the bass.
Almost all the tracks feel like unearthed cassette singles from that Reagan-era pop landscape. “Black Sun” sounds like INXS, with echoing guitar reverberations leading up to a dirty, overdriven solo. “Little Wanderer” might be the most Phil Collins-esque of the bunch: It’s an elegant nugget of mid-tempo respectability, a sound that Death Cab has been honing to its distilled essence. It’s such a simple, almost basic song, but contains the purest example of heartfelt pining (for a long-distance love) on the album. It’s followed by “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life,” where Gibbard really slips the knife in. It’s a lament for the one that got away, the lost loves now more vivid and desirable as memories than they ever were in person.
But it’s not all gloom and loneliness, even if that feels like the dominant theme. “The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive” is the Code And Keys’ “Doors Unlocked And Open” of Kintsugi, a driving, addictive tune that manages to sound ethereal and affecting even as it pulses with a chiming, single-chord guitar riff. Trying to convince someone else to “not be lonesome” with him, Gibbard revisits the places and people that he already knows hold no promise. “El Dorado” is the record’s other big anthem: A drumbeat mimicking latter-day Radiohead, it has a frantic rhythm combined with languid vocals, a fast-slow pairing that makes for a robust combination. The last couple of songs pair some backing “ooh-oohs” and lilting harmonies to the melancholic words, making their mournful tone feel as comfortable as a glass of warm milk. The record ends with Gibbard singing a story of Atlas, his world slowly falling into disarray, as he tries to make intimacy out of expansiveness. It’s a nice metaphor for the record as a whole, and if the band is unsure about how to achieve that goal, the sound of its artful growth doesn’t show it.