opinion byJESSE NEE-VOGELMAN
Death Cab for Cutie has been around long enough for the original drummer, Nathan Good, to have retired from music and begun teaching English at my old high school. He now plays drums for the faculty band.
For legends, these days, decline is inevitable. Rock stars used flame out at 27; now, post-millennials are just as likely to know Jay Z as a businessman or Robinson Cano’s agent as a rapper (or maybe the guy who does the boring part on Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love”). If you choose to keep making music seven LPs deep into your career, odds are you’re not surprising anyone anymore. And, for all the revitalization implied by the name Kintsugi — a type of Japanese reassembled pottery, meant to emphasize the object’s journey and transformation — DCFC’s new album finds front man Ben Gibbard sounding more like a parody of himself than ever before.
Discarding the albums actually awesome opener, “No Room in Frame”, — which briefly had me hoping for some tangible musical progress from the band — Kintsugi is more or less 45 minutes of boy-next-door, paint-by-number indie pop. Taking “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive” as a stand-in for the entire album, the problems become clear. Technically flawless and boasting an earwormy chorus and attractive guitar line, the song fails to deliver anything resembling insight or emotion. Gibbard effectively distills the issue in his own lyrics, singing: “I don’t know why, I don’t why/I return to the scenes of these crimes,” adding later, “I want to sell but not be bought.” Gibbard knows how to sell records; the problem is that he must keep drawing from the same well, over and over again.
A delightful cultural apocrypha claims that by the time Dr. Seuss died, he dreamed only in rhyme. Similarly, I wonder if Gibbard has spent so much time writing sappy relationship music that he dreams only in lovers’ clichés. “Little Wanderer” actually manages to touch on Parisian windows, a lighthouse, and kissing in an airport all in one verse. It’s the Love, Actually approach to pop music. But this shotgun songwriting is especially dangerous for a band like Death Cab, whose success has always rested on the specificity of its images and distinct, relatable relationships.
For the rest of the album, pleasantness and unoriginality blend satisfyingly. “Black Sun” croons tired antitheses — making sure we know there exists cruelty in fairness, “hope within despair,” and “beauty within a failure” — before distracting us with a pleasantly out of character and all-too-brief guitar solo. “Good Help (Is So Hard To Find)” offers little beyond its title and the possibility to dance in that confined way indie arena bands have cultivated over the years. “Ingenue” bemoans the plight of a manic-pixy-dream girl. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
It’s difficult not to sort Kintsugi into the same category as Modest Mouse’s recent Strangers to Ourselves resurrection. Both album titles hint at an artistic transformation that failed to manifest itself on the actual music. Strangers to Ourselves was recognizable to everyone but the band, and Kintsugi — unlike its namesake — has no cracks. It is seamless, unadulterated, pained, strained Death Cab, just like we’re used to. It’s no better or worse than anything dating back to Transatlanticism.
Increasingly, it seems like Gibbard’s greatest legacy will be his one legendary album as The Postal Service. However, it’s not so long ago that Death Cab were indie rock royalty, instead of the aging punch line they’ve become. The problem, of course, is time. Nathan Good teaches English now. His greatest musical accomplishment in the last five years is forcing my old psychology teacher to backup percussion at fundraiser events.
Time passes. At this point in their career, Death Cab for Cutie are churning out entire albums for the sole purpose of generating singles to populate their inevitable greatest hits album. Still, they’ve given us enough great tracks over the years for us to let their flame go out gracefully. Years from now, when you’re insisting to your children that you belonged to the greatest alternative rock generation of all time, just skip Kintsugi; play “Title and Registration,” and leave it at that. C+