The last time we heard from Death Cab For Cutie life – as the matinee jaunt of Codes And Keys closer ‘Stay Young Go Dancing’ put it so nauseously – was sweet, with frontman Ben Gibbard high on marriage and making music that reflected it, cloying and vapid and wholly forgettable. Four years on and that’s all over, the pair divorced and Gibbard broken, and it’s hard not to feel at least a little relieved.
That’s not just idle sadism: this is a band that simply doesn’t belong in the light, those magic-hour hues ill-befitting a group that thrives within the shadows, poring through life’s miseries with deft musicianship and lyrical flair and spinning sadness into song. Their lurch towards the saccharine was like a sitcom defying its own episodic arc, Peep Show closing on a joyous Mark or Father Ted making it to LA: nice, sure, but just not right.
Props then to Zooey Deschanel for restoring the balance, her sterling work throughout their divorce providing Gibbard with the richest seam of despair that he’s yet mined. From the echoes and starting pips that open the album to the static drone that closes it Kintsugi is 45 minutes of passive aggression and steely barbs, a mortuary-slab dissection of their marriage that cuts deep into the tissue with steady-handed deliberation: “Was I in your way/when the cameras turned to face you?” Gibbard asks icily on ‘No Room In Frame’, “how can something so fair be so cruel?” he ponders on ‘Black Sun’ with surprising brutality, all the more disarming for its melody.
Sure, we’ve already had the year’s great breakup album in Bjork’s Vulnicura, its blasted landscape and stabbing beats the perfect complement to a relationship in free-fall, but Kintsugi arguably hits harder for its lightness, its bitter heart shrouded in soft arpeggios and catchy riffs. Guitarist Chris Walla may have departed – the band’s other breakup story – but musically this veers little from the template, guitars fading into reverb and the drums building steadily, the rhythm section propelling Gibbard’s lyrics but rarely standing out above them. The electronics might be a touch more pronounced this time around, in the synths that bed ‘Everything’s A Ceiling’ and strafe through ‘Black Sun’, but we’re still pretty far from The Postal Service with the digital additions adding little more than texture, a discord lurking at the edges.
But hey, it’s not change we’re after from Death Cab, right? There’s a comfort in their formula, in the envelop of Gibbard’s narratives and the bruised drama of their music. Granted, it gets a little airless past the midpoint, notes merging like the cover into a meld of indistinction, but few bands nail pathos quite like these people, embedding their emotional shards so effectively into songs that sound so light. It is striking though how Gibbard keeps the tone so measured, how the searing heartbreak that bubbles underneath this never quite burns through, caustic and corrosive but potentially so thrilling. Perhaps he should have let it, because for all its strengths and tortured songcraft Kintsugi remains an autopsy of dead flesh in a sterile room, when flailing limbs and rending screams might have been more visceral.