[Image Courtesy of Barsuk]
ANNIVERSARY RECORDS: Death Cab For Cutie’s Transatlanticism – Pt. 2
by Chad Jewett
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. Check out Part 1 here.
Sometimes it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that great music is largely about choices. We tend to overlook all the moving parts, and that becomes somehow both more and less apparent when it comes to “perfect” records, the ones that we really spend time with. Think of Abbey Road or Remain in Light or, most recently, good kid, m.A.A.d city. The big things stand out — the way Abbey Road’s second half connects into a prog-pop fugue, or the interstitials of idle chatter and family squabbles that turn good kid into something like an opera. These are the things you’d cite if you were trying to explain what makes these records untouchable. But that’s not what you’re thinking about when you’re in your car with them. You’re thinking about addition and subtraction; it’s the five seconds of video-game noises on “Born Under Punches” that sell you on David Byrne’s ideas about the haunting schism of the organic and the synthetic; it’s the Kid A computer snare in “Backseat Freestyle” that gets me excited, even more than the album’s general once-in-a-decade brilliance. But here’s the thing; I am always forgetting that David Byrne made the call to add those Atari bloops. Hit-Boy and Lamar presumably had an 808’s worth of snares before they winnowed it down to that one. So what I like best about the Transatlanticism Demos, which accompany Barsuk’s reissue of Death Cab for Cutie’s perfect album, is that you are presented with a living, breathing diorama of the choices this band made to build one of the single finest indie rock records ever recorded.
Recorded with drum machine rhythm tracks and mostly distorted acoustic guitar to forecast in place of the official album’s heavier, fuller sound, the most surprising thing here might be the way these demos stand up on their own. As beloved as Transatlanticism is, it’s safe to say that Give Up (released roughly nine months before Transatlanticism), the laptop-pop one-off from Death Cab front-man Ben Gibbard and producer/electronic musician Jimmy Tamborello, is the more red-letter album. Transatlanticism is peerless, but Give Up is landmark; the former got it just right, the latter arguably changed the way pop and indie interact as sounds. So when several songs here, if only because of their programmed settings, come off sounding like Postal Service songs, complete with found-sound beats (I’m thinking especially of the surprisingly beat-oriented Demos version of “Lightness” and “Death of an Intertior Decorator”), you also get a sense of the ways in which The Postal Service’s melodic ideas carried over to the best Death Cab album. “Title and Registration,” the most Postal Service-like track of the official album, is thus the least revelatory here, since we’re used to that one-two step of electric drums. But much of the rest of the album changes considerably. Give Up was all about the concision of the perfectly sung line, and despite Transatlanticism’s sprawl, you see, through the demos, how this record started in a similar place. It’s also interesting to hear songs like “Expo ‘86” in this stripped down form, since they end up sounding like songs from We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes, all climbing-vine guitars and conversational tunefulness. It’s here that we really see the addition; all the muscle that got added on to make Transatlanticism feel so substantial, rather than simply charming and collegiate like previous Death Cab records, even if moments like the volume drop-out in the late bridge of “Expo ‘86,” a nifty, Spoon-like idea, would have been cool to keep around. Hearing the different lyrics on “Expo” and several other songs also reminds you that Gibbard, in his early 2000’s peak, was the best lyricist, and even these alternate versions prove it. Thank god he was around and doing this kind of work back then. Listening to these demos, it’s one of those odd cases where you can’t decide which version you like better. You find yourself wondering if Gibbard had the same trouble.
The Demos have their share of surprises. “Sound of Settling,” in its early version, was considerably slower, with a doubled vocal track that re-orients the official version’s power-pop into an almost Fountains of Wayne-like cool down. It gives you a chance to appreciate the wonderful melody here, but also makes you miss everything Death Cab wove into this song – those beautifully odd-timed handclaps, the reedy Telecaster jangles, one of the better beats in an occasionally beat-averse discography (though just as often, Death Cab tracks groove more than they ever get credit for). While Transatlanticism Demos frequently has the unexpected effect of making me (even for a second) weigh the demo against the original, the first go-round of “Sound of Settling” starts to show the ways in which that “art of choices” theme surfaces with a vengeance. You find yourself missing every little thing about “Sound,” and start to realize that it was all put there. Because the best songs make you forget exactly that.
“Tiny Vessels,” in its finished form, came out sounding the most like a We Have The Facts left-over, but its embryonic version cuts that familiar, fuzzy four-on-the-floor beat. We’re left with a clean arpeggio and Gibbard’s voice, and it doesn’t necessarily make things more tender, or more poignant, so much as it makes the song more difficult to shrug off. “Tiny Vessels” always felt like an oddly cynical moment on an otherwise extremely earnest album that seems much more concerned with making it work across spaces than selfishly filling the gaps in ourselves. But then we have to deal with this song that forces us to accept that we’re capable of both. It becomes sort of ironic that the very thing Gibbard is trying to get us to admit on “Tiny Vessels,” that even the best of us use people, is so easily elided by the bulk of this album, which makes it so much easier for us to label ourselves “romantic,” and “heroic,” and “faithful” to a soundtrack that is very clear on making those qualities triumphant and making the admissions of “Tiny Vessels” sound small. The Demo version, in its unadorned form, makes these confrontations a lot harder to ignore. It’s interesting to ponder, then, why it so papered over with all of that cursive-guitar ivy. Probably because, like us, Gibbard knows some things are just tough to look at in too-clear a light of day.
I’ll come right out and say I prefer the Demos version of “Transatlanticism.” Replacing the album version with a gauzy electric piano, ticking programming, and a kaleidoscoping keyboard, frequently glazed with a glacial, echo-ing synth that feels like an identical twin to a similar part on “The World At Large” by Modest Mouse (released just a half year later, and still feeling like a book-end to this record), the outsized emotions of the title track are poignantly offset by these more terrestrial surroundings. All of a sudden, instead of amplifying this early-20s romanticism with similarly huge sounds, we get a reminder of the beauty of much smaller things. The out-of-tune piano on the early take of “Passenger Seat” is similarly smaller-yet-bigger, but the change is less profound. For “Transatlanticism,” the demo sounds like it could be playing in the background as an emanation from a car’s tape deck, as opposed to playing in Dolby from a mega-plex. And while the latter is exactly the way we think of our emotions at the time, huge and cinematic and so damn important, the latter is the way we think about them when they become “yesterday.” They’re hazy and they’re quaint and they sting instead of throb. But of course, Transatlanticism has become yesterday for me, as has the person I was when I first bought it and played it into oblivion. So maybe, as I similarly over-play this demo version of its thesis song, I am drawn to it because it’s making all of the tricks memory plays on us literal: Was I ever so young?