Sound — 9
With Death Cab For Cutie steadily gaining ground as one of the biggest indie rock bands throughout the first decade of the 21st century, this current decade has been, contrastingly, much more harrowing for them. The mixed reception of 2011's "Codes and Keys" would give the signal for the indie scene en masse to be "over" DCFC, and in the same year, founder and frontman Ben Gibbard would get divorced from superstar actress/musician Zooey Deschanel. Spending some time in dormancy to recuperate from the misfortunes, DCFC would announce that they had begun working on their eighth album in late 2013; though with Gibbard having temporarily reunited his indietronica project, The Postal Service, earlier that year, plenty of people would have rather chosen getting a follow-up Postal Service album rather than another DCFC album. That, along with the downtick of "Codes and Keys" would make the waters even tougher for the band's eighth album to swim in.
In regards to that, "Kintsugi" brings a lot of sonic variance to the table, but this variance has a number of depths than just shaking up the band's formula. At face value, the variance spans from moments dedicated to starkly trying out new styles DCFC haven't before (like the retro synth backing that gives "Everything's a Ceiling" a new wave aura, and the dance-rocker "Good Help (Is So Hard to Find)") to moments dedicated to the classic days (like the conventionally-DCFC indie rocker "The Ghosts of Beverly Drive" and the minimal coffeehouse track "Hold No Guns"). Go a level deeper, and the variance takes its form in the way DCFC augment new tropes with their expected style, like the sampled "la-la" vocals from Gibbard that loop throughout "Ingénue," or the analog synths and strong fuzz guitar solo found in "Black Sun."
But at a deeper level, the real variance that "Kintsugi" is concerned with is the nuance of its aural tapestry, and how DCFC blur the lines of hierarchy in the musical elements of songs. For example, the Postal Service-esque synth loop that leads the way in "No Room in Frame" is paired with sparse guitar harmonics, giving the passive sound element the spotlight and the assumed lead instrument the supporting role. Or take the somber ballad "You've Haunted Me All Your Life" - the acoustic guitar melody may be the heart of the song, but with the ebbing and flowing of synth tones, pad drones and light percussion, it's the peripheral sound elements that are better worth paying attention to. And though most tracks snowball into well-layered, lush ensembles, "Little Wanderer" and "El Dorado" in particular show the intrigue of treating melody with a team mentality by passing it around amongst several guitar tracks and other instruments.
Lyrics — 7
Gibbard's heart has always been in a vice when it came to writing lyrics, and it wouldn't take much of a wild guess to figure out that the woe he pours into "Kintsugi" is all from his divorce from Deschanel. He's never been one to be elusive in meaning, and the album is all but concretely defined as a concept record about the whys of their breaking up; the biggest of which that Gibbard harps on is Deschanel's skyrocketing stardom. Her rise in fame crossing with his decline is the focus in "No Room in Frame" ("was I in your way / when the cameras turned to face you?"), though he also admits his own difficulty in dealing with her growing stardom in "El Dorado" ("I'm trying to be kind for you / as you slip away behind the gates") and their fits of long distance in "Little Wanderer" ("you sent a photo out your window of Paris / of what you wish that I could see... And I hope your absence makes us grow fonder"). Tangentially, Gibbard also rhetorically, and rather spitefully, warns Dechanel of the downfalls of stardom, like the straining of personal relationships in "Good Help (Is Hard to Find)" ("good help is so hard to find / for people that are so refined") and the inevitability of growing older devaluing an actress in "Ingénue" ("Ingénue, what will become of you? / When age's glacial pace / cuts valleys through your face?").
Along with his 20-20 hindsight of recounting why their relationship ended, Gibbard of course shows his wounds from that separation; wounds that, evidently, still haven't healed. While these are the moments most prone to cliché (the designated tracks, "Black Sun" and "Everything's a Ceiling" wield the themes of darkness and depression with the subtlety of a sledgehammer), "Black Sun" at least counterweights the elementary cries of "how can something so fair be so cruel?" with a genuine desire, and struggle, for resolution ("and there's grace within forgiveness / but it's so hard for me to find").
Overall Impression — 9
As daunting as it is to be an album in the "past-their-prime" era of a band, "Kintsugi" accomplishes several things for DCFC. In one sense, it's a feasible quasi-answer to those who were lusting for another Postal Service album, given all of the synth elements that are well-tended in the album. In tandem with this, "Kintsugi" also succeeds in what "Codes and Keys" attempted to accomplish years ago - a DCFC album that could distance itself from the main trail the band have traveled upon for over ten years and fare well. The biggest reason why "Kintsugi" succeeds where "Codes and Keys" failed is the ingenuity in its songwriting, practicing the idea that transforming one's sound goes much deeper than simply changing the most obvious. And with meticulous detail found in the production, "Kintsugi" shows how sophisticated DCFC can sound.