There’s something really disturbing about wishing for a devastating turn of events to someone’s personal life so that their art will benefit. And yet, in the words of one of history’s greatest orators Winston Churchill, “We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.” It is hardly a surprise then, to find that- in the immediate residuum of his high-profile divorce to actress and musician Zooey Deschanel, Death Cab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard seems to have found the means for survival and perseverance through a renewed creative focus.
The album’s title, then, is a fitting epithet for the reverberations to come. Kintsugi refers to the Japanese art form of fixing broken pottery by filling in the cracks with gold. This act is a conscious decision by the artist to embrace the flaws of an object as a way to highlight the history that object has gone through.
These flaws that have been patched up in gold have an obvious parallel in Gibbard’s own life. But in this instance, it is not just the aforementioned divorce that forms those golden crevices. Long-time collaborator and Death Cab For Cutie guitarist and song composer Chris Walla also announced his departure prior to Kintsugi. Even though Walla informed the band that he was leaving, he still stayed on board for one final album. Walla’s shadow haunts Kintsugi to a near-distracting degree. Whether it’s the somber harmonics of lead track “No Room in Frame,” the dancey alt-strumming of “Good Help (Is So Hard to Find),” or the barely there finger-plucked acoustic in “Hold No Guns,” the album is filled to the brim with memorable guitar lines, which- despite the mostly somber and downtrodden tone of the album- have a way of sticking with you.
Kintsugi, it should be said, isn’t particularly a surprising listen. There are still some of the same devastating one liners that Gibbard has become acclaimed for. “No Room in Frame,” the album’s opening prelude, sees Gibbard sings, “I guess it’s not a failure we could help/And we’ll both go on to get lonely with someone else. With someone else.” It’s a sobering early nadir to the record, where Gibbard allows his resolute solitude wash over him, a nihilist viewpoint on love coloring the narrative of the song. This is the work of a man with abandonment issues. The sparse production on the album highlights this desolate perspective, an effort that pales in comparison to the processed and polished album that precedes Kintsugi, Codes and Keys. While that record was a slick, upbeat experimentation in pop-rock from the band, Kintsugi- an altogether more predictable album, but certainly a bigger triumph- feels quintessentially Death Cab-ian.
The album’s greatest success, though, is in the track “Little Wanderer” It’s the kind of late-era career song that any band would be jealous of Death Cab for crafting. “Little Wanderer” is stunningly simple, elegant elegy to a long-distance relationship- and the failings that often accompany them. As Gibbard’s lover strays further away- as symbolized by the “photo of your window in Tokyo/Paris”- Gibbard hopes to become a beacon by which to guide her back home to him. “But someone’s got to be the lighthouse, and that someone’s got to be me,” he sings, in a somber, wistful tone.
While few of the other tracks on Kintsugi can reach the mastery of “Little Wanderer,” the album remains a much more heartbreaking and striking release than the band’s preceding album Codes and Keys. Longtime fans will undoubtedly find at least something to enjoy here, while new Death Cab For Cutie fans may be recruited by the album’s atmospheric and intricate production. Kintsugi is one of 2015’s first true must listen releases.