Column: Growing Up with Death Cab for Cutie

Growing with your favorite band is a difficult thing – like any relationship, you have to accept the fact that maybe the strength of the original connection was due to the fact that your lives lined up – you were in the same place at the same time. You continue to look for the things you first loved, but life goes on, things change and you may no longer be cohesive.

This is essentially how I felt with Death Cab for Cutie over the past few years. The band has grown significantly – the little indie band from Bellingham has signed a major label, sold out shows at Madison Square Garden and perhaps most notoriously, the lead singer, Ben Gibbard, engaged in a brief marriage to actress Zooey Deschanel. They’re not my band anymore – they’re everyone’s.

As NPR wrote, “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.” I finally understand that I have to look at their new work with different eyes, and evaluate them under different standards.

“Kintsugi” is Death Cab’s eighth album, and the first to be produced without mainstay Chris Walla, who parted amicably from the band last year. While Walla still performs on the album, the band still felt a strong sense of loss from his departure, as well as other aspects of their personal lives. The title “Kintsugi” reflects this, as it references the Japanese art of using gold or other precious materials to repair broken ceramics, accenting the damage instead of covering it up.

They’ve worn many hats over the years, but world-weary works for Death Cab. Despite its flaws, the album opener, “No Room in Frame,” is my favorite song of theirs in years. When examined, it’s blatantly about the Gibbard/Deschanel relationship – the literal lyrics such as “Was I in your way when the cameras turned to face you? / No room in frame for two” are its detracting weak point – but musically, it conveys such a sweet sadness that I feel the same loving ache I used to for the band. Lyrics like “I guess it’s not a failure we could help/ and we’ll both go on lonely with someone else” are much more universal, and set the tone for the album. Death Cab may be weary, but they are never bitter. They are always earnest.

It’s undeniable that the band has commercialized, evident especially in single “Black Sun,” which is fairly generic except for its tremendous and driving instrumental bridge. But the album is not without its strong points. It seems that they’re going to insist on doing pop songs, and they do it much better on the track “Little Wanderer.” Lyrically, “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive” sounds the most like vintage Death Cab. Here, “Gibbard remembers to write great Death Cab for Cutie songs the way he knows how—zooming on important specifics that speak on a larger idea, trying to make sense of newly formed concepts as he’s explaining them to someone else, rather than starting with the most broad, market-tested metaphors,” said Pitchfork in their review of the album.

The band embraces a more acoustic and stripped down sound in tracks “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life” and “Hold No Guns,” and it works beautifully. There’s something so intimate and rewarding about hearing an aging band letting the walls come down.

Simplicity is their strong suit on this album; conversely, orchestral closer “Binary Sea” treads a thin line between lush and plodding, but as Pitchfork points out, it’s a nod to traditional “weepy” closers, such as “Stable Song” and “A Lack of Color.”

“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…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,” said NPR in their review.

No, it’s not up to their former glory. But there’s some definite highlights here. There’s something comforting and human about this album. If nothing else, Death Cab is always at least honest.

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