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.