“If only you had known me before the accident / for with that grand collision came a grave consequence. / Receptors overloaded; they burst and disconnect / ‘til there was little feeling, please work with what is left.”
-“The Ghosts of Beverly Drive” by Death Cab for Cutie
Kintsugi is an album about reconstruction. The title of Death Cab for Cutie’s eighth studio album—named for the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold to make the cracks an artistic part of the object’s history—makes that point evidently clear. Relationships die. Band members leave. Love and loss are never mutually exclusive experiences, and Ben Gibbard lyrically wrestles with this inevitability over the course of Kintsugi’s eleven tracks. When a marriage ends in metaphorical car crash, it’s painful to pull out all the cutting shards of glass out of your face, deal with the visual scars they leave, move past the haunting memories of the ghosts of passengers that once rode shotgun, and get over your skittishness to return to the driver’s seat.
Kintsugi finds Death Cab for Cutie in a completely different musical environment than anything the band has explored in the past, and producer Rich Costey serves as the engineer behind the sonic shift. Kintsugi marks the first time guitarist/producer Chris Walla (who left the band after Kintsugi’s recording) wasn’t behind the board for a Death Cab album, and the record definitely has a different set of fingerprints on it. Costey's credits include acts like Muse and Foster the People, and there’s certainly some hallmarks of current modern pop rock strewn across Kintsugi’s landscape. Luckily, he executes them in a subtle enough way to make it not feel like a betrayal to Death Cab’s back catalogue. Much of his tweaking comes in tiny tonal shifts like digital-sounding interplay between guitar parts on “Good Help (Is So Hard to Find)” or the special sense created by reverb on “El Dorado.” Even the drum tones on the album present a fresh feel, but not in a way that ever undercuts Jason McGurr’s beats. Only “Hold No Gun” stands out as an incongruous production moment, as the ultra stripped down production (featuring only Gibbard and his guitar) seems alien to the rest of Kintsugi.
This new musical world jives with Gibbard’s lyrical approach on the record, which recaptures his sharp sense of personal, emotional songwriting after the distance found on Death Cab’s previous album Codes and Keys. Songs like the longing “Little Wanderer” carry a substantial weight, but at no time feel like a crushingly heavy burden. The spurned darkness of the lines on “Black Sun” matches the ominous minor guitar picking that’s peppered with glitchy electronic flecks. Spectres of drum claps, digital twitters, and distant vocal ooohs of swirl around Gibbard’s haunted words on “Ghosts of Beverly Drive.”
Kintsugi marks the beginning of a new era for Death Cab for Cutie. While it’s Walla’s swan song, Gibbard, McGerr, and bassist Nick Harmer stand ready to write the next chapter in the band’s storied legacy. Reconstruction is never easy. But, when done right, it can be beautiful.