A look back at Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie

Ben Gibbard was an engineering student at Western Washington University, thirty minutes from the Canadian border, when he began to pull together a band called Death Cab for Cutie. 

While he was playing guitar for another group, Gibbard released a solo demo tape, You Can Play These Songs With Chords.

The positive reception of that demo, which would become Death Cab’s debut album, encouraged Gibbard to put together the band that would see its breakthrough album, Transatlanticism, become a staple of indie culture and reach certified Gold status just a few years later. 

Transatlanticism was the group’s fourth studio album, released by Barsuk Records, out of Seattle.

This would be Death Cab for Cutie’s last effort to be released by Barsuk, as the popularity following its released leveraged them to cut a deal with Atlantic.  

As on previous albums, Gibbard’s strength as a songwriter is obvious on Transatlanticism. The music aims high, epic in lyricism and sound. The opening track, “The New Year,” dives right into an album that is lusher, musically, than previous efforts.

Yet the first line, “So this is the new year / And I don’t feel any different,” suggests self-awareness. While the album is certainly one of high emotion, we know right away that a pinch of mature cynicism is not out of the question. 

The texture of the album feels like high romance, gives the impression of whirlwind feelings. The use of varied time signatures and layered effects create a dreamlike sound. There is often a slight echo on Gibbard’s distinctive, breakably bookish voice. In places, the colors have been swathed on like van Gogh, so much so that you benefit from seeing the brush strokes. 

For example, the rock-infused tempo and drive of “We Looked Like Giants” matches the urgency and paranoia of the subject matter: discovering sex for the first time. The messages in these songs do not hide behind subtlety.

The album sweeps up listeners in the emotions of love or loneliness or hopefulness. There is a risk, however, of overindulgence. The eight-minute titular song, which has appeared on the soundtrack for television shows like Six Feet Under and CSI, lays on the atmosphere thick and heavy. 

But the lyrics do no rise to match it, and in comparison the wall of sound seems to suggest a lack of confidence in the lyrics. The repeated chorus, “I need you so much closer,” is a straightforward sentiment, speaking foremost to physical distance, given the opening verses of the song.

The sound swells, reaches a climax in the group-sing, “come on,” at the end, but overall it doesn’t take us to the places an eight-minute title track should. Instead it comes across as comparatively melodramatic. 

The next track, a pared-down piano piece, “Passenger Seat,” feels more sincere. Its four minutes are short. The lyrics are simple and, well, plain sweet. We don’t need to be romanced beyond the endearing honesty of the closing stanza, “If you feel embarrassed I’ll be your pride / If you need directions then I’ll be the guide / For all time.”

This track, along with the equally forthright “A Lack of Color,” encapsulates what Gibbard is arguably best at: taking small moments, the ones we often forget or overlook, and pointing out their significance. The beauty is in the details, and this is nowhere as true as it is in the realm of human relationships.

Transatlanticism was rated number 57 on Rolling Stone’s list of the best albums of the past decade. It proved to be the project that would launch Death Cab to the forefront of the indie-pop scene, and encourage Spin Magazine to pronounce Gibbard “the poet laureate of the young and the hopeful.”

Death Cab went on to release three more albums, allowing their musical style to grow and test more experimental waters, while remaining accessible and identifiable enough to appear in movies and television. Their most recent album, Codes and Keys, came out in the spring of 2011 and received generally positive reviews.

Anne Kilfoyle, MXDWN