Anniversary Records: Death Cab For Cutie’s ‘Transatlanticism’ – Pt. 1

Transatlanticism
[Image Courtesy of Barsuk Records]

ANNIVERSARY RECORDS: Death Cab For Cutie’s Transatlanticism
by Trevor Johnson

Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now.

Transatlanticism gave me unrealistic expectations for parties. I don’t know anyone my age that owns crystal and wearing a suit to a party just seems like it will result in steep dry cleaning bills.  I imagined early-adulthood to be full of dapper, properly-drunken fun, the kind that still lets you set off fireworks without casualties and no one ends up fighting or puking or crying. That’s not to say I’m frequenting the kind of undergrad-style ragers that seem to build and build as if no one has ever even heard of a hangover, but I guess my celebrations tend to split the difference. However misled I was on how December 31st goes as a twenty-something, I’ve had a decade to not only enjoy this album but to live it. It’s an honor when a piece of art impacts you as an adolescent and makes more sense as you grow into it. It’s the best intention of hand-me-downs: “You’ll need this someday.”

I fell in love with this album at seventeen. It was the first album that ever changed my mind on music without coming from a place of punk or hardcore angst. Just where exactly indie rock comes from is its own master’s thesis, but this album sounded like everything I immediately wanted to be. It was buttoned-up, kempt but lacking completely smoothed edges. Transatlanticism found its way into my hands at just the time when appearing an adult while remaining young became an act of defiance, especially against peers that seemed nowhere near ready for adulthood. I remember trying to build who I was on the way this album made me feel. It seemed collected and well presented, it had its shit together. Ten years later it stands as Death Cab’s most concise moment. Transatlanticism is the Seattle quartet writing pop songs but also knowing just how far to stretch the putty, so that the swelling, anxious ennui never wears thin at its middle, never gives way to ineffectual, broken parts of a whole.

I don’t remember liking “Expo ’86” as much as I do now. It used to just serve as the mid-tempo pop song that was sort of like “The Sound of Settling” but wasn’t “The Sound of Settling.” The verse plays like two simple notes, one responding to the other on each beat as the riff and melody build off of one another. The anxieties of new romance spin along in the lyrics, reaching tense musical peaks in the bridge. It’s a familiar spot in our twenties, these quick courtships that usually lead to nothing, when you actually dread positive reaction from the other party because at some point you will invest in this emotionally and things will get a lot more stressful before they bear fruit. Maybe it’s the curse Ben Gibbard has shared with all of us dorky, uncomfortable guys: that sometimes the biggest relief is in being cut down before you become too invested. That “no new battle scars” should be considered a moral victory, a “sense of relief.” There’s also a maturity in that realization, that not every girl you come in contact with has to be built up as “The One;” that by your mid-twenties you shouldn’t be hanging on every opposite-sex interaction like a ticket to perpetual bliss. That the relationship in Transatlanticism progresses beyond here is a moot point; you have to reach a certain level of comfort with yourself before anyone else can.

The title track remains one of the best songs I have ever heard. When I look back on all the things that could have ruined it for me along the way – none more daunting than simply time, I suppose – it really is surprising. The way it all begins, both sonically and emotionally, all to move us into the depressive valley of “Tiny Vessels,” which slowly drifts into the weight of “Transatlanticism.” The song is the slow build of missing someone, how each moment becomes bigger than the last, how distances stop being about miles and time and waiting and become incomprehensible: “…it seems farther than ever before.” The piano progression seems to crush you more and more each time through. Ben Gibbard drops his usual wordiness for two phrases that pack a dictionary’s worth of strength: “I need you so much closer.” It’s the non-eloquent nature of desperation, of childish pleas. This rolls into “So come on,” steps beyond begging, becomes more the vocal equivalent of being slumped down against a wall, having little more to give. Everything just keeps swelling and building on itself and weighing. Somewhere it sounds like a jet engine begins to turn and whirr. Right about then a hope enters the picture, or a consolation. It’s the small, sad realization that maybe feeling this void is so much better than feeling nothing at all, and that maybe anyone in this spot should find some shred of solace. And just as you’re settling in and starting to breathe again the balloon pops. Whatever was supporting you is gone and you’re alone again. Maybe you’ve fallen asleep voluntarily and the music cutting out is you waking up in the dark, disoriented for a moment and then quickly, just as alone as before. This will be a reoccurrence, I guess. “So come on…”

The album touches so many other moments. The fade from Los Angeles sunlight to approaching storm clouds in “Tiny Vessels” (also the most artful description of a hickey in Western history) as Gibbard feels the excitement of lust dissolve into what it truly was all along: an empty, regrettable facsimile. “Passenger Seat” is a few moments of moon-soaked transition between the emotional peaks of “Transaltanticism” and the preciousness of “Death of an Interior Decorator”. The ballad provokes echoes of Nick Drake as it ambles (though not aimlessly) and ends with the grand slam wrapped in a touchdown of a line: “When you feel embarrassed, I’ll be your pride. When you need directions then I’ll be the guide for all time.” It’s the kind of promise you’re eager to make at 17 but have to be very certain of to follow through on at 27.

As well as Transatlanticism has aged I feel more as if I’m the one who’s aged — aged into its message. In ten years it has become an album that I lived, regardless of whether or not I had it playing in the background. There are songs that I will always seek out individually; the way “A Lack of Color” licks a record’s worth of wounds, the aforementioned weight of the title track. Others will exist exclusively as part of the whole. It’s the kind of record that makes milestones significant, so we can look back and see just how much it got right.

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Half Cloth

Independent Music & Arts Criticism

8 Responses

  1. Jesse says:

    The first song I heard from this record was “We Looked Like Giants”. I was in college. There has never been a better song for a specific moment in time for me than that one.

    And it still reminds me of that girl.

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