Desertion — inseparable from its aftermath of recovery — haunts “Kintsugi” (Atlantic), the eighth album by Death Cab for Cutie. Titled after the Japanese art of mending cracked ceramics with precious metals, it’s a smartly shaped response to two recent disentanglements, at least one of which seems to have left a residue of trauma.
Death Cab for Cutie formed in 1997 as a melodic indie-rock band with a lineup featuring singer-songwriter Benjamin Gibbard, bassist Nick Harmer and guitarist Chris Walla. Walla announced his departure last year; this is the first proper Death Cab for Cutie album that he didn’t produce, but he stayed long enough to finish his parts.
The other development, less recent but apparently more disruptive, involves Gibbard’s divorce from Zooey Deschanel, star of the Fox sitcom “New Girl” and the indie-pop duo She & Him. Though the word “amicable” has been dutifully deployed, and Gibbard has bristled at those who mine his songs for the confessional, it’s hard to ignore the subtext of a song like “Ingenue,” in which he coolly disparages cuteness, bright colors and “the currency of being 23.” If he were a bit more like Taylor Swift, he’d have arranged the tune for parlor piano and ukulele, with too much reverb on the vocal.
But in terms of style, “Kintsugi,” produced by alt-rock veteran Rich Costey, values continuity: Its sound suggests a reasonable next step for Death Cab, tastefully embellishing a guitar-and-drums core with some atmospheric cushioning and brittle rhythm production. Less startling a departure than “Codes and Keys,” from 2011, it nevertheless holds on to some of those textures — and those of the Postal Service, Gibbard’s electropop side project — folding them into a comfortingly familiar fabric.
But Gibbard has something other than comfort on his mind here, even if his fallback as a vocalist is sweetly articulate introspection. Maybe these new songs aren’t meant as a personal rebuke of Deschanel, who is engaged and expecting a child.
Best to draw your own conclusions, then, from “Little Wanderer,” in which Gibbard calls out longingly to a globe-trotting lover, while casting himself, metaphorically, as a beacon. Likewise with the opening track, “No Room in Frame,” which sounds like the passive-aggressive complaint of a red-carpet arm attendant, and “El Dorado,” whose chorus hinges on the phrase “I’m trying to be hyped for you.”
There’s a voyeuristic thrill here, not unrelated to certain moments on Bjork’s “Vulnicura,” whose songs plunge into the feelings surrounding her breakup with the artist Matthew Barney.
“How could something so fair be so cruel?” Gibbard asks in the chorus of “Black Sun,” against warbling synthesizer chords. If you can tune out the image of Deschanel, it’s a keeper. And a synth-pop tune called “Everything’s a Ceiling” is seamless with its blend of gut-punch sadness and lyrical grace, conveying a sensation of strandedness, of “nowhere to go except further below.”
Nate Chinen, New York Times News Service