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A New Year for ‘Transatlanticism’: Why Death Cab For Cutie Is More Than a Relic

"Transatlanticism" by Death Cab for Cutie
When I told my friends I was writing about a Death Cab For Cutie album, most of them groaned. This response was to be expected. 15 years after the release of their magnum opus, I typically hear opinions of the band ranging from “stale” to “tolerable.” Admittedly, I have yet to hear a complaint I disagree with — the lyrics are unapologetically drenched in cliché; the songs seem tailored toward a certain brand of self-absorbed wallowing; their sound, while distinctive, can become repetitive and formulaic after listening to enough of their songs.

However, it is the simplicity of emotion captured throughout “Transatlanticism” that makes the album so powerful. The single-line refrain “I need you so much closer” is not repeated for more than three minutes over the instrumental build of the title track because frontman Ben Gibbard couldn’t come up with anything else to say; rather, the song works to capture a moment where the need to express that specific longing to transcend distance is so intense, that to fill the space with any other words would be a waste of valuable breath.

Through the form of a concept album, Gibbard manages to paint a multi-dimensional understanding of the interplay of love, distance, and longing while keeping the scope of each individual song narrow and the tone self-absorbed. The spatial and temporal shifts throughout the album lend the songs different meanings in the context of one another. The opening track, “The New Year” couches the album’s examination of love and distance in an examination of nostalgia and what it means to grow older. Through the back-to-back pairing of “Tiny Vessels” and the title track, a sense of distance in intimacy is pitted against the need for intimacy in distance. “We Looked Like Giants” reaches into the narrator’s past, recalling the urgent scramble across distance as he first began exploring his sexuality, a time “when every Thursday I’d brave those mountain passes / and you’d skip your morning classes / and we’d learn how our bodies worked.” Though the past-tense of the song’s title implies that sex no longer carries the larger-than-life awe it held for him in his youth, the other songs on the album show a continuation of this desperate search to find something greater in love and a disillusionment with his failure to do so.

In fact, the only bubble of contentment that is not a product of compromise or resignation is found in “Passenger Seat,” which does what the other songs on the album cannot — it addresses and dismisses the idea of a straining toward a distant goal in the following lines:

“Then looking upwards

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I strain my eyes and try

to tell the difference between

shooting stars and satellites

from the passenger seat as

you are driving me home.

Do they collide? I ask

and you smile.

With my feet on the dash,

the world doesn’t matter.”

In an album that devotes so much energy to reaching for another place, person, or time, it is powerful to couch the only instance of such tranquil satisfaction in a song that literally takes place in motion. The song alone is beautiful but trite. But in the context of the album, it is phenomenal.

The album’s songs provide good contrast for one another in terms of sound as well. The words of “Passenger Seat” are sung like a lullaby, paired with calming piano notes, while songs like “The New Year,” “Title and Registration,” and “Death of an Interior Decorator” lend a more upbeat tempo. As the penultimate song of the album, “We Looked Like Giants” carries the most pent-up energy — energy that is then beautifully diffused in the apathetic vocals and soft, steady finger-picking of “A Lack of Color.”

There’s a lot of music I’m quick to dismiss as music I “liked when I was younger,” but this is one exception I will always make: “Transatlanticism” stands the test of time through the way it plays with time itself, weaving together nostalgia for the past and longing for the future. Each song offers a narrow, focused window into one of many veins, to which you bring your own perspective; listening to the album at one point in your life is a different experience than listening to it at any other. For some, the album evokes an anticipatory nostalgia for a time in their life they have yet to reach — a reflection on an alternate present or a possible future. For others, the retrospective perspective Gibbard takes parallels their own. The opening line of the album, “So this is the new year,” illustrates the way in which “Transatlanticism” follows each listener through time. The new year of the opening track could be any year: it is always moving, but the restless feeling expressed throughout the album is constant. In another 15 years, who knows what divides we will be longing to cross?

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