Death Cab for Cutie's "Black Sun" Is Promising (and Nothing More)

Following their creative low point in 2011's Codes & Keys and shedding a band member, Death Cab for Cutie's first new song in years is promising, but not a whole lot else.

"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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.