The word ‘Kintsugi’ means a “style of art where they take fractured, broken ceramics and put them back together with very obvious, real gold. It’s making the repair of an object a visual part of its history.”
It has understandably been a hard four years for Death Cab For Cutie since Codes & Keys came out. First, Ben Gibbard’s divorce makes for a departure from the newfound love that existed in songs like “Stay Young, Go Dancing” on Codes. Second, guitarist and founding member – and perhaps most importantly long-time producer – Chris Walla decided to leave the band, with this being his final album. The result of these situations is Kintsugi.
Entirely true to its name, the album expresses the void felt by Gibbard – the need to fix (or fill) something that is broken, to find something that is missing. The opening “No Room In Frame” begins with music that feels desolate and incomplete before Gibbard solemnly admits, “I don’t know where to begin.” The eerie music carries on, as the choppy guitars and drums add weight to the heartbreak of the line “And I guess it’s not a failure we could help / And we’ll both go on to get lonely with someone else.” The repetition of “with someone else” adds another blow to the gut, really letting the sheer desolation of the song sink in. One track in and we already have the fractured heartbreak that resonates throughout Kintsugi, just as the name implies.
The first half of the record follows in vein of the opener, with somber instrumentation echoing the tepid nature of Gibbard’s voice – the stark opposite of the early Codes & Keys tracks such as “You Are A Tourist” or “Some Boys.” Now the spacey synths and groovy guitar intros are replaced with guitars that don’t light up the road ahead, they are almost burning out, a slight flicker. Single “Black Sun” uses only a kick-drum tap to add weight to the softly sung chorus of “How could something so fair / Be so cruel / When this black sun revolved / Around you.”
However, it is the little moments on the first half of that album where the heartbreak sneaks in that really hit hard – not always the choruses. Take “Little Wanderer” for example. The opening line of “You sent a photo out your window of Tokyo / Told me you were doing fine” becomes devastating after a couple listens, once you begin to pair it with the conclusion of the opening stanza: “But I couldn’t make you out through the glitches / It’s how it always seems to go / So we say our goodbyes over messenger.” While the verses depict a vivid picture of a relationship apart as it fades, the chorus itself becomes overly repetitive very quickly. “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life” has a similar issue. The guitar plucks paired with the almost elusive drum taps add even more desperation to the repetition of “You’ve haunted me all my life” refrains, each just as devastating as the previous one. Still, the repetition itself does lessen some of the weight of the words.
While the first half of the album is incredibly delicate – both lyrically and vocally – the second half borrows some elements of Codes & Keys and Narrow Stairs musically on tracks. The first touch comes rather early on with “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive,” being a buoyant track that sounds not unlike “Codes & Keys” musically. Later on, “Everything’s A Ceiling” signals the shift again, this time letting the drums share more of the spotlight as Gibbard crowns, “So what am I supposed to do,” with pronunciation that adds even more weight to the plea. “Good Help (Is So Hard To Find)” goes even further in that direction in a way not unlike “Some Boys” did. The guitars groove around in a way that gets your foot tapping – something that would have been unimaginable with how the album starts off.
While the album has grown on me immensely since my early listens, there are a few problems. Of course, the aforementioned issues with repetition that slightly weaken “You’ve Haunted Me All Your Life” and “Little Wanderer.” On the softer side, “Hold No Guns” is about as stripped down as the album gets, but after the already repetitive “Haunted,” it is just a little too mellow to directly follow. Thankfully, “Everything’s A Ceiling” picks the pace up afterwards. On the other hand, the upbeat “El Dorado” comes across as this album’s “Doors Unlocked And Open,” a track that has potential but never really takes off. The music overshadows the chorus in a way that renders it instantly forgettable.
In proper Death Cab fashion, the closer is just magnificent. From the moment frail piano begins the song, the song is the ideal closer for the album. The piano melody travels throughout the song as Gibbard sings of a decay followed by a sense of hope. The opening image is one of a struggle that is too much to handle: “Oh Atlas could not understand / The world was so much smaller than / The one he used to hold before / But the weight it brought him to the floor.” This is the part of ‘Kintsugi’ that involves the fractured, broken ceramics. As the track concludes, the pieces are slowly put back together, as Gibbard softly concludes, “So lean in close or lend an ear / There’s something brilliant bound to happen here.”
This record may not be perfect, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s a record of hardship, of heartache, of loss. A record of almost losing hope but building up a glimmer of it to exist in. Kintsugi tells the story of a loss on every level. Gibbard’s lyrics are some of the most personal and best he’s written since Plans. The instrumentation reflects this sense of loss by just barely pacing along at times, letting the emotion ring through every strum. As a result, the album takes some time to really dig into. There is a lot to digest here – it’s vulnerable and introspective, borrowing softer soundscapes from a record like Plans and unexpected more upbeat influences from Codes & Keys. Even the acoustic, stripped down tracks harken back even further to material more in line with The Photo Album. At its core, Kintsugi takes broken pieces and finds ways to put them back together into something new.