1000 REVIEWS /// Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie

by Joseph Sardella

Album Artwork by  Adde Russell

Album Artwork by Adde Russell

Finding the words to start this was no easy task. It feels wrong to even consider this a review. Transtlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie is an album that has defined or redefined what listeners and aspiring musicians like myself want out of music. Since its release in 2003, this album has been a wellspring for every generation: the people who latched onto it when it came out, the people who latched onto it five, ten, or fifteen years after it came out, and probably even the people who will latch onto it twenty, twenty-five, or thirty years from now. Transatlanticism has the power to greatly impact the lives of those who hear it and let it wash over them, the ability to inspire creativity in musicians young and old, and the heart to remind us that honesty is what matters most in all that we do.

Before diving into a brief track-by-track discussion, it is worth mentioning the intentionality of the music behind the lyrics. Each song is written in such a way as to highlight certain emotional lines or themes. The rhythm section in Death Cab has always been impressive for their dynamics and ability to carry each song to where it needs to be energy-wise. Any melody instruments expertly play with the vocal melody and with each other. Chris Walla and Ben Gibbard are masters of guitar interplay and that is on display in full force on this record. The music is just as important as the lyrics and just as impressive. 

The opening track “The New Year” is one of the best album openers I have ever heard. To open the album, massive chords ring out over the programming and swell in, perfectly conveying the sheer emotion and tone of this album. The first pass of the chord progression establishes a sentiment that this album is going to be a journey. Lyricist and frontman of Death Cab, Ben Gibbard, effectively reflects on the cognitive dissonance of things changing and the passing of time while feeling much the same himself as those transformations happen around him. The disillusionment of aging seen more in the things around you than in yourself, even though you know it is happening to you. Wow. The music matches the intensity of that concept and experience. The song crescendos to the outro, essentially cementing that feeling that they are trying to transmit and then drops right into “Lightness”. This song is much quieter and slower, a juxtaposition aesthetically, but not so much conceptually. The contrast of the two songs truly helps to drive the point of “Lightness” which is to expand on the idea from “The New Year” but in a romantic setting instead of a personal setting. “Lightness” seems to touch on the romantic connection between two people where one partner has a difficult time letting the other one in mentally and emotionally. Gibbard is again painfully aware of his situation.

Transatlanticism seems to progress in movements. The first three tracks are one concise statement, then the next two tracks, then the next three, followed by the last three. This is just an observation from a listener, and not something that the band or Gibbard has said (to my knowledge). To wrap up the first movement, “Title and Registration” concludes the narrative of the first three songs with Gibbard coming to terms with the changes around him and the disconnect of him and a former lover finally receiving closure. He reflects on the reminders of a serious relationship or at least one in which he was heavily invested. “Title and Registration” helps him find closure to an ending, and sums up the first lyrical motif of the record. 

The next two tracks, “Expo ’86” and “The Sound of Settling”, are a briefer musical statement but of equal importance to the trajectory of the album as whole. In “Expo ’86”, Gibbard reflects on the cyclical nature of a relationship starting, deteriorating, ending and starting over. He only has the clarity to see it as such because of the closure experienced in “Title and Registration”. In “Expo ’86” the music helps to carry the lyrics which discuss a cyclical relationship. The guitar parts form a repetitive line, furthering that sentiment we are hearing verbally. The arrangement helps to highlight emotional peaks in the song. When the climax of the music is reached, so is the climax of the message of the song. After the song ends the same way it starts, “The Sound of Settling” reinforces the cyclical idea being communicated in the second movement of Transatlanticism. The song starts and ends with the same lyric, just like “Expo ’86”. The first line talks about being torn between speaking your mind vs. holding it in and getting caught in that loop. Despite being stuck in these vicious cycles as Gibbard realizes he and everyone around him are, he finally comes to terms with things changing and the fact that he is too. The problem now is that he has no control over it and he seems to grieve that but sounds hopeful about it because he isn’t alone in that.

Which brings us to “Tiny Vessels”, the first track of the next movement. Having come to terms with aging, the world changing, and his utter lack of influence on those things happening, he tries his hand at love in a new place, Los Angeles (Death Cab is from Seattle). He uses the juxtaposition of Seattle overcast days and the sunshine of Los Angeles to illustrate the looming darkness of his stage of life. He finds a new partner and he constantly harps “she is beautiful, but she don’t mean a thing to me” and later directly addresses her “you are beautiful, but you don’t mean a thing to me”. There is nothing wrong with this new woman that Gibbard briefly talks about, she might even be just a metaphor, but the song feels very autobiographical. Gibbard cannot reconcile his new insights and also be in love. He is struggling so intensely with his new perspective that not even love can clear the clouds and comfort him. He has failed to preserve the world around him that he wanted. This new fling fades at the end of the song and as such fades into the title track “Transatlanticism” with a percussive motif, tying the tracks together sonically.  

 “Transatlanticism” finds Gibbard reflecting on the loss of his love, possibly from the first movement. He begins to come to terms with that being part of the darkness. It seems that the uncontrollable nature of things is what drove him and this first lover apart and that is where his difficulty lies for him. He doesn’t care so much that he couldn’t control everything around him so much as he does care that he couldn’t control the situation in a way that worked for him and his former lover while also allowing them to be together. He speaks of an ocean separating himself from the subject of the song. He mentions that he cannot cross the body of water; that he cannot reach this person. The ocean becomes a lake, and then “more like a moat” as he sings. He feels isolated from this person as he admits to himself his longing while he sings “I need you so much closer” for a minute and a half. The song builds, finally crescendoeing with an echoing “come on”, almost begging this person to try to get closer too.

From this moment of heartbreak, we get transported into “Passenger Seat”, the last song of this movement. This song seems to be a memory that Gibbard recounts with fondness. It is potentially a memory from a time when the ended relationship was flourishing. There is a piano that plays sparsely to support his melody and adds to the nocturnal memory feel of the song’s moments. Full of melancholy, he reflects on riding shotgun with a loved one whom he wanted to navigate life with. He hints at asking lofty questions but not caring about the answer because the only thing that mattered to him was that they were together. The piano rings out the motif one more time before we enter the last movement of the album.

“Death of an Interior Decorator” begins with a drum groove and picked-through guitar part. The most abstract song on the album lyrically, this song sets the tone for the movement. It doesn’t add to the narrative with its content, but it effectively moves us into the next theme for the narrative. This song seems to tell the story of a woman with three daughters who is an interior decorator. It seems like her husband, or at least the father of the girls, gets remarried or married to someone else while she was off designing a space. Gibbard mentions the youngest daughter doesn’t seem happy about the new union. Something the woman owns gets broken at the wedding and she cleans it up after the reception and walks into the sea when Gibbard says that act felt like falling in love again. I  think this song is setting up the listener for the last two songs, which is why I see the last three as a single movement as well.

With the mood set, “We Looked Like Giants” begins with a minor progression that at first seems like it might be angry, but we quickly find out it articulates pain as Gibbard viscerally remembers his emotional and physical intimacy with the lover who seems to walk through the album haunting him. The whole band kicks in to let the listener know how intense the memory is for Gibbard. The song ends with a lyric that recollects the hardest part of the memory for him to think about and then “A Lack of Color” starts. This track is the conclusion to his movement but also to the whole album. It’s just Gibbard, his acoustic, some very simple drum programming, and a soft piano. He admits to himself his difficulty in letting go of the relationship, he acknowledges that he cannot get over this significant relationship that he lost. He has no way to cope and he doesn’t know how to go forward except for just letting time pass. This is where he finally admits his fault in the ending of the relationship. He reiterates the idea three times “I should have given you a reason to stay, given you a reason to stay, given you a reason to stay, given you a reason to stay”. Then he ends by saying “this is fact not fiction for the first time in years”, as if to say this is the first time he has been real with himself not only since the relationship ended but probably since their separation was beginning. 

We are taught the value of honesty not simply by the integrity and quality of the songs that Gibbard’s illustrates, but also by the difficult lessons he learned himself. Not being entirely honest with himself about the pain he was feeling or the outcomes of his choices prolonged his grieving. Death Cab for Cutie connects so well because of their honesty and commitment to being transparent in every aspect of their music.