Monday, April 27, 2015

You've haunted me all my life: Reflecting on the wrongful dismissal of Death Cab for Cutie's "Kintsugi"

It's tough not to get emotional about a band like Death Cab for Cutie. For a lot of people my age, these guys weren't just a band; they were the band. For every Seth Cohen wannabe between here and 2003, Death Cab might as well have been The Beatles. Their songs gave an intimate nobility to the science of heartbreak, provided a gleaming façade for the concept of lonesome solitude, and built a world apart from everything that sucked about being a teenager or young adult in the first decade of the new millennium.

Suffice to say that every person who ever laid in bed feeling sorry for themselves to the sounds of "A Lack of Color" and "Transatlanticism"—and you can bet that there are a lot of those people out there—holds Death Cab for Cutie to an impossible standard. And how could they not? Kids from my generation, they grew up with this band; they learned the hard lessons with this band's music playing in the background; they made mixtapes for their future husbands or wives featuring songs written by this band. Those kinds of nostalgic, emotional connections don't go away after five years or 10 years or 20 years, and while they will immortalize Death Cab for Cutie forever, they will also guarantee that Ben Gibbard and company will forever deal with the problem of impossible fan expectations.

That fact became very evident on the band's 2011 effort, Codes & Keys. Fan entitlement is a weird, off-putting thing in the best of circumstances, but I don't think I've ever seen a fanbase backlash against a band with quite the same level of noxious vitriol that got laid upon Death Cab following the release of Codes & Keys. Essentially, fans blasted Gibbard for getting married and writing a happy record, because it didn't mesh with their memories of being depressed and lonely and listening to Transatlanticism and We Have the Facts… in the dark. In some circles, Zooey Deschanel, Gibbard's (ex-)wife, even got labeled as Death Cab's Yoko Ono. The critical and fan consensus was that Gibbard was happy, so he wrote shitty songs. Fans in turn wanted him to stop being happy, so that he would write good songs again.

Leaving aside the fact that Codes & Keys is hardly the gleeful "we're married and in love" album that many made it out to be, it is still fucking inexcusable that fans reacted to it in the way that they did. It's one thing not to like an album; it's another to act like a band owes you because you forged an emotional connection to their songs 10 years ago; and it's quite another thing to suggest that a songwriter doesn't have the right to be happy because it impairs his artistry. Let's be clear: the Death Cab for Cutie fanbase is full of assholes.

Still, a lot of those assholes got their wish when Ben Gibbard and Zooey Deschanel separated and subsequently divorced within the year and a half that followed Codes & Keys. Ben Gibbard was heartbroken and lonely again! Hooray, maybe he would write Transatlanticism part two! But Gibbard's break-up album—which doubles as Death Cab for Cutie's eighth LP, Kintsugi—has hardly been greeted as a return to form. Instead, now, Gibbard is being lambasted for being too much of a sad sack sap, and for writing precisely the kinds of songs that a lot of fans wanted him to write three years ago. "A group resting on its laurels," PopMatters called the disc; "overwrought," said The Guardian; "boy-next-door, paint-by-numbers indie pop," Pretty Much Amazing wrote.

Such poor reviews illustrate the kind of no-win scenario that bands of Death Cab's age and profile often face. The band took chances and evolved their sound with Codes & Keys—as well as with 2008's Narrow Stairs—and neither album got a warm reception. Kintsugi, meanwhile, is a return to form—filled with the kind of aching melodies that populated Plans, and with the scathing and mournful guitars that filled Transatlanctisicm—but it has resultingly been called safe, bland, flat, predictable, a step backwards, a band spinning its wheels, etc. Where does a band go when they can no longer do anything right? What kind of songs do you write when fans want your heartbroken boy-next-door honesty when it's missing, and then mock it when it returns? Which direction do you take when your fanbase turns against you?

From listening to Kintsugi, it's pretty clear that Ben Gibbard and the rest of Death Cab for Cutie (including departing guitarist and producer Chris Walla) didn't worry much about pleasing their unappeasable fans here. Rather, they made a tuneful and honest record that perfectly captures the feeling of breaking apart and putting yourself back together again. The highlight is "No Room in Frame," the opening track and the song where Gibbard most directly addresses his recent divorce. "Was I in your way, when the cameras turned to face you?/No room in frame for two," he sings on the brief chorus refrain. Later, he delivers the kind of devastating lyric that many came to Death Cab for in the first place: "And I guess it's not a failure we could help/And we'll both go on being lonely with someone else." On first listen, I was immediately thinking, "this is the band people fell in love with." When that line is followed by a wash of some of Walla's most evocative electric guitar work, it just feels like home.

The rest of Kintsugi is every bit as lonesome. On "Little Wanderer," Gibbard communicates with a lover through texts, as she travels the world and leaves him home alone. The song is a beautiful encapsulation of both love in the digital age and of long-distance relationships. In the second verse, the narrator is "doing the math to the time zone you're at," falling asleep just as the sun is rising for his significant other on the opposite side of globe. And in the final passage, he imagines the moment "when our eyes meet past security" and "we embrace in the baggage claim." Anyone who has ever been in a long distance relationship will relate to the urgency of this song, and to that moment in particular. When you spend days, weeks, or months away from the person you love, you are constantly counting down the moments until you are together again. You make up these reunion scenarios in your head, envisioning them as sweepingly romantic moments worthy of film.

If you're lucky, you get to experience those moments in real life—the most powerful of which is the one where the distance finally disappears for good. If you're unlucky, your machinations are never realized. They remain stuck in your head, playing on loop in frenzied montage of the things that could have been but will never be. For Gibbard, it's the latter: at the end of "Little Wanderer," he's imagining a moment that will never happen. Like City and Colour's "Hello, I'm in Delaware"—another great song about long distance relationships—"Little Wanderer" is about a couple whose bond won't survive the weeks they have to wait until they see one another again. The problem here is one that technology and constant communication can't fix, and that closing snapshot, with the imagined reunion in Gibbard's head, is such an effective twist of the knife that the song becomes his most vivid heartbreaker since Plans.

Throughout its 11 tracks, Kintsugi wanders the dark back roads of heartbreak, covering every stage of the end of a relationship. During "Black Sun," Gibbard rages at Zooey. "How could something so fair be so cruel?" he asks, before a ragged guitar solo from Walla gives his anger a corporeal shape. On the white-knuckled "The Ghosts of Beverly Drive," he rages at himself, repeatedly remarking, "I don't know why, I don't know why/I return to the scenes of these crimes"—the song careening around corners like a train about to go off the rails. And on "Binary Sea," he finally finds acceptance and resignation, bidding his old love farewell as the album drops its curtain.

Make no mistake, there is a lot of bitterness in these songs, from "Everything's a Ceiling"—where Gibbard implies that Deschanel thought of herself as the center of the universe—to "Ingenue," where he asks his young and beautiful ex-wife what she will become "when age's glacial pace/Cuts valleys into [her] face." But there's also contrition and self-loathing, as Gibbard, who has often played the victim in his songs, recognizes that there are two people to blame for the end of his marriage—and he's one of them. In "El Dorado," he berates himself for letting jealousy prevent him from being proud of his wife's accomplishments; on "You Have Haunted Me All My Life," he wonders why he gave up on someone who was such an important piece of his world for so long; even on the resentful "Ingenue," you can hear a lingering fondness in Gibbard's voice as he advises his ex to "escape from this town"—presumably Hollywood—"before [her] sand runs out." It's his last plea, for her to live her life and be herself instead of letting the pressures of stardom change her, and coming as it does after the break-up, it feels poignant and heart-rending.

As Kintsugi draws to a close, Gibbard finally closes the book on his failed marriage. "Lean in close and lend an ear/There's something brilliant bound to happen here," he sings in the final bars of "Binary Sea." It's a hopeful ending to a record that rarely reflects optimism, but a sign that, with these songs, Gibbard has worked his way through his heartbreak and is ready to start the next chapter of his life. In that way, it recalls Coldplay's Ghost Stories, another downbeat breakup album from a massive band that was unfairly maligned upon its release. Regardless of critical thrashings or fanbase backlashes, though, these two records were the albums that their creators needed to make at the time. This kind of exorcism of personal demons is essential work for any artist, and as someone who believes necessity often begets the greatest art, it's work that I gravitate toward personally. Kintsugi might not be a departure from Death Cab's past style, and it might not appease all of the old fans. But to me, a band being this honest and open on record is far more interesting than a band trying to reinvent the wheel for the purpose of reinventing the wheel, or to reach a group of people who outgrew them five years ago.

Friday, February 27, 2015

I Can Still Hear the Trains out My Window: The Nostalgia and Perspective of Mat Kearney's 'Just Kids'

Mat Kearney has always been a bit ahead of the curve as far as pop music was concerned. In 2006, he burst onto the scene with Nothing Left to Lose, a lingering set of songs that blended elements of pop, folk, and hip-hop into a sonic cocktail that sounded like no one else in the industry. The album brought a bit of mainstream success—for the summer pop tune, "Nothing Left to Lose"—but the most interesting songs were the ones where Kearney bent or blended genres on a whim. With spoken word or rap-driven songs like "Undeniable," "Bullet," "Can't Break Her Fall," "In the Middle," and "Renaissance," Kearney not only marked off his own unique corner of the sensitive Greys Anatomy balladeer market, but he also established a charismatic personality that rarely comes through on debut albums. The freestyle nature of his rap sections allowed Kearney to go much deeper into autobiographical territory than he would normally have been able to do with a three or four-minute pop song, and as he told us his stories of growing up, falling in love, getting in car accidents, and launching a music career, he suddenly felt like a guy we'd been listening to for five or 10 years—rather than for just 13 tracks.

I've remained interested in Kearney's story ever since, but it would be inaccurate to claim that his next few records were as unique, nuanced, or autobiographical as Nothing Left to Lose. 2009's City of Black and White ditched the hip-hop aesthetic entirely, in favor of Laurel Canyon-favored folk-pop. 2011's Young Love, meanwhile, was produced like a hip-hop record, with booming beats and a small handful of samples, but pulled its punches rather than allow Kearney to return to his roots. Songs like "Ships in the Night" and "Chasing the Light" had sing-speak verses that recalled Nothing Left to Lose, but even on those numbers, Kearney still seemed hesitant to go full-rap or be as daring as he once was. And ultimately, Young Love could be summed up less as a return to form for Kearney, and more as a harbinger of the kind of bombastic pop that fun. would popularize on the next year's Some Nights.

This narrative explains precisely why I'm so taken with Just Kids, Mat Kearney's fourth major label LP, and his first in three and a half years. For the first time since Nothing Left to Lose, Kearney seems comfortable jumping genres again. He reveals that fact right away, dropping a rap over the militaristic beat of opening track "Heartbreak Dreamer." It's a potent introductory statement, flitting between a sample of childish singsong chant, Kearney's lyrical verses, and an eye-of-the-storm chorus. When the song hits another sample—a two minute excerpt of Anis Mojgani's moving beat poem"Shake the Dust"—the song ascends to a higher place. The poem, an inspirational paean for the forgotten and downtrodden, meshes perfectly with the handclaps, drumbeats, and keyboard melodies of "Heartbreak Dreamer," and feels like it could have been recorded for the specific purpose of being used in this song. The fact that is wasn't only further establishes "Dreamer" as Kearney's most adventurous and ambitious piece of songwriting in nine years.

For its part, Just Kids is never as melodically lovely or lush as City of Black and White, and it can't quite match Young Love on a hook-for-hook basis. The record shows its flaws when Kearney tries to do a song without a spoken word segment, with numbers like "Heartbeat," "Let it Rain," and "Miss You" arguably tilting toward generic pop territory. That's surprising for Kearney, especially considering the fact that Young Love made a play for the mainstream without sacrificing the quirkiness and charisma that has always made him great as an artist. This record's plain pop songs aren't bad at all, but they do sound like standard radio fare, which has never been a problem before. The ballads aren't quite as striking this time around, either, though numbers like "Ghost" and "The Conversation" are still more than welcome additions to the Kearney catalog.

Where Just Kids really does thrive is in its commitment to storytelling. This is the closest Kearney has ever come to replicating the feel of the jagged and personal Nothing Left to Lose, and that fact shines through when he ditches the traditional pop song format and goes off in exploration of different genres. It's not just hip-hop, either: the title track, an autobiographical song about Kearney and his wife, has an unhurried R&B feel that recalls both Drake and Frank Ocean, while the booming "Billion" has elements of everything from EDM to African chant to 80s funk-pop. Both "Moving On" and "Shasta," meanwhile, play around with vocoder in a fashion that nods to Bon Iver and Kanye West.

By throwing all of these different elements at the canvas, Kearney is able to mold song structures to his will. And just like he once bent genres to tell audiences who he was in the first place, here, he's expanding his story further. As the album title implies, the core narrative here is about growing up. The title track illustrates his earliest music influences (Bob Marley and Wu Tang Clan, to name a few), while recounting his first experiences laying down raps "over instrumental tapes." "One Black Sheep" starts with Kearney in Oregon, feeling like the guy who will never fit in, and ends with him heading off to Nashville to pursue his dreams. And "Los Angeles" is like Butch Walker's "Going Back/Going Home," a full career manifesto that takes Kearney from a "thousand cap room…only eight people came" to hearing his name called on Letterman.

For all of its different threads, Nothing Left to Lose was, at its core, a record about growing up and finding a place to belong. It's a theme that Kearney has explored again and again throughout his career, from a hometown slipping away in the City of Black and White, to one last carefree summer of Young Love. Just Kids continues the story, though now, all of those old stomping grounds feel a bit different. That's intentional: Kearney knows that his listeners have grown up along with him, and that most of us have now traded unpredictable youth for adulthood routine. As a result, Just Kids is Kearney's most openly nostalgic record ever, an album that gazes back fondly on the places we used to call home, the people we used to call best friends, or the dreams we used to carry around with us. 

"Hometown remind me where I come from," he begs in the reverb-soaked beauty, "Shasta," before reminding himself that "we've got miles left to go, to a place that I don't know." Those two lines perfectly sum up what Just Kids is all about. It's a record meant for looking back at all of the good times, while simultaneously recognizing that there are so many good times still to come. It's for those mornings when you check Timehop and get warped back to high school antics or summertime adventures, or to the people you lost touch with along the way. But it's also a record for cherishing the people in your life now, and for soundtracking all of the remarkable adventures still waiting further on down this big old dusty highway that we call life. Springsteen has always said that he followed specific themes, characters, and stories throughout his entire career. Not enough artists make those kinds of interconnected discographies anymore, but Kearney is absolutely one of them, and Just Kids is a vital new chapter, both for the songwriter and for the people who came of age listening to his songs. It's one of the first great records of 2015.