Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When hypothesizing about the theoretical laws of blowback, Newton was merely reporting his observations of the physical world. And in the 300+ years since Newton introduced his laws of motion, they’ve come to represent a large portion of what we hold true in the everyday physical world.
But what about art? Does Newton’s third law still hold weight when it comes to analyzing the subjective, murky depths of something as emotionally charged as songwriting? I’m assuming there’s a litany of reasons why the third law and the creation of music can’t walk hand in hand down the isle, but time and time again since the advent of rock and roll (and likely before that too) Newton’s pesky physical-world rule rears it’s head. Need proof? How many times have you heard one of your favorite bands say that their new record is a “return to form” after overstepping the bounds of acceptability for their fanbase?
Such claims happen all the time in music, the latest example being Death Cab for Cutie‘s Ben Gibbard, who stated in a recent interview with NME that his band’s new album Kintsugi would “win back” fans that felt put off by the sunny (by Death Cab standards) disposition of the groups previous album, 2011’s Codes and Keys. As a fan of the much-maligned Codes and Keys, I had a difficult time reconciling Gibbard’s observation. However, after only one spin through Kintsugi, I found myself beginning to understand why he and many of his fans felt let down by their previous effort. More so, I was able to recognize just how far Death Cab had strayed from their past output up to that point.
The first few moments of album opener “No Room in the Frame” set a precedent for what’s to come for the remainder of the album. The upbeat tone and melody of the music seem like a bridge from their previous album, but it’s Gibbard’s confessional lyrics that provide a haunting contrast and when he sings “And how can I stay in the sun/When the rain flows all through my veins, it’s true” it’s immediately clear that things are gonna be different this time around.
The next ten songs on Kintsugi are largely minor chord dominated reflections on loss and what could have beens, with Gibbard’s much-publicized split from Zooey Deschanel being the most obvious fodder that likely propelled his writing. His strength as a gifted lyricist may have come into question on recent efforts, but on Kintsugi, Gibbard’s penchant for exposing emotion again takes center stage. “Everything’s a Ceiling” is crushing snapshot of betrayal and ultimately acceptance of circumstances, with Gibbard singing “I’ve got nowhere to go except further below, so I keep digging.” Intimate snapshots like this one prevail throughout the record and while they may not be the easiest thing to digest, they are for better or worse, the bread and butter of any great Death Cab for Cutie album.
Musically, Kintsugi is a multifaceted listen. It’s not really a throwback album, nor is it a complete departure from the lush, sprawling soundscapes they’ve built their name on for the last decade. Instead, the album sits somewhere right between the two. Songs like the lead single “Black Sun” and the nearly-funky “Good Help (Is So Hard to Find)” will satiate post-Transatlanticism fans, with tracks packed with so many sounds and subtle nuances that you’re sure to be discovering new elements years down the line. On the other end of the spectrum are songs like the somber “You’ve Haunted Me All Your Life” and the acoustic anti-ballad “Hold No Guns,” both of which are sure to become fixtures in the comedown portion of future live sets.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a couple of surprises to be found on Kintsugi. The reflective yearning of “Little Wanderer” packages the best bits of Death Cab into a tidy, four-minute indie rock masterpiece. Albeit an emotionally devastating masterpiece, but a masterpiece nonetheless. However, the real highlight of the album is “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive” which sees Death Cab churn out an electro-tinged, new wave inspired stomper unlike anything they’ve ever done before, culminating with Gibbard’s declaration “You wanna teach but not be taught/I wanna sell but not be bought.” It’s an incredibly refreshing moment on an album where bleakness reigns supreme.
Repeated listens to Kintsugi reveal a band that sounds refreshed and recharged, in spite of all of the loss surrounding the album, both lyrical and literal. It’s difficult for me to call this album a return to form, because in my opinion they never really left. But there is little doubt that Kintsugi is a reactionary work, similar to The Cure’s gloomy masterwork Disintegration. It’s a dark and brooding record, but it leaves enough room for even the smallest ray of light to penetrate it’s shadowy disposition. Equal and opposite reaction? Maybe. But one thing is for certain, that Kintsugi is yet another stunning chapter in the Death Cab for Cutie collection.