“There is beauty in a failure,” Ben Gibbard sings on “Black Sun”, the lead single from Death Cab for Cutie’s first album in nearly four years. His is a very pointed, observant statement, considering that he isn’t too far removed from having written the worst album of his career.
No, we’re not talking about his inevitable MOR solo effort from 2012, Former Lives, which exhibits the cardinal solo artist sin of sounding like something he could’ve made with his regular band anyways. No, it was Death Cab for Cutie fans the world over who rightly bemoaned 2011’s downright insipid Codes & Keys, which, save for a few moments like the minimalistic electronica candy of “Monday Morning” or the pounding piano jangle of “Portable Television”, brought out the worst tendencies of the quartet, ranging from disengaged performances to dry, bland, and sometimes downright nonsensical lyrics from Gibbard.
It almost felt like 2008’s excellent stylistic detour Narrow Stairs never even happened, and the band went from trying to expand their sound to falling back into a really sad comfort zone, one which lead to placements on teen vampire movie soundtracks, in the process bringing them a gamut of populist-indie fans who never bothered to go beyond Plans in the group’s discography. As a result of all of this, the band’s 2003 masterpiece Transatlanticism has become a faint reminder of what the band was once capable of.
Outside of this career downturn and the pseudo-drama of guitarist/producer Chris Walla leaving the group on amicable terms, it seems that Gibbard, bassist Nick Harmer, and drummer Jason McGerr are now in a no-win position. In this tricky spot, the band is forced to change things, lest they get written off by the hardcore proselytizers who keep wanting to abandon the group but stick with them through it all, even through the muddling disaster of Codes & Keys. (Even Gibbard has been vaguely agreeing with that album’s negative assessments in recent press interviews.)
“Black Sun” doesn’t completely break the band’s aesthetic like “”I Will Possess Your Heart” did, nor does it sounds like the dreaded “armchair Death Cab” that showed up on Codes & Keys‘ lead single “You Are a Tourist”. Instead, this somewhat somber mid-tempo cut plays with a simple melodic guitar riff, a steady drum beat that might as well have been programmed from a drum machine, and waves of dark synths that help wash the chorus in a moodiness that we haven’t heard from the group in some time. Gibbard himself drops his oft-effective nasal whine for a plainspoken, more guttural intonation this time out, a move that helps give his vague musings some shape (“How could something so fair / Be so cruel / When this black sun / Revolved around you”). Although he here again forgets that powerful lesson of listeners finding universality in specificity, not the other way around.
So while not a barn-burning, re-ink-your-favorite-Gibbard-lyric-tattoo hosanna that some may be expecting, the simple melody and dark textures of “Black Sun” do serve as proper teaser of what we can potentially expect from the album. However, whatever shape takes, it’s pretty obvious that even if it doesn’t hit the highs we’ve come to occasionally expect from the group, in no way this will be worse than Codes & Keys.
Kintsugi is out on 31 March via Atlantic.