When I was in later high school, probably Grade 12, one of my friends told me that he had been listening to a lot of Death Cab for Cutie, specifically “Transatlanticism,” their fourth full length release. I was a bit… particular (read: pretentious) with my musical tastes in high school, so if my memory serves me I probably nodded politely while thinking ‘Death Cab hasn’t been cool for like 5 years! They were a plot point on ‘The O.C.,’ for God’s sake.’ This thought, while perfectly correct in its specifics (has Death Cab ever been cool?), misses the point of Death Cab for Cutie entirely. Death Cab was never cool, and that’s totally okay.
If you were in high school in the late aughts, Death Cab for Cutie was an inevitability. They were still ‘indie’ in the most blanket sense (although they had already left Barsuk for Atlantic Records by the time I entered high school) but really, they were one of the biggest crossover rock acts that existed at the time. Part of this was because of the cultural gravity of ‘The O.C.,’ of course, in which Death Cab was Seth Cohen’s favourite band and their music was featured in a number of episodes. Another reason for their success, certainly entangled with the first, was how easy it was to listen to their music — Death Cab songs are like horoscopes (this is a compliment) in that they can mean everything to everyone, and you can always find one for the mood you’re in. There’s a reason ‘I Will Follow You Into the Dark’ stood head and shoulders above all the other quietly strummed sad-boy music that was being released at the time; Ben Gibbard and co. had the ability to bring out universal feelings while sounding like they were only talking to you. This ability slowly faded as the band released more music, but ask 10 fans of Death Cab for Cutie and they’ll give you 10 different favourite songs (I’m a Title and Registration’ or ‘Blacking Out the Friction’ guy myself), and none of them would be wrong (except ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’).
In any case, I decided that I’d check out “Transatlanticism” about two years after my friend suggested it to me (sorry, Brad), and after I’d realized that maybe I should give this massive band a chance instead of dismissing them out of hand after only hearing a few songs. Needless to say, I was blown away. “Transatlanticism” is the sound of a band with a lot to say and the songwriting and musical chops to back those ideas up. It makes sense that “Transatlanticism” was the album that pushed Death Cab truly into the mainstream — it’s accessible, heartfelt, melancholy, and personal, the perfect album to soundtrack movie credits and trailers for years to come (again, a compliment).
The focal point of the album is Ben Gibbard’s songwriting; it’s economical while remaining concrete, personal and plaintive, and still asking the big questions. One of Gibbard’s biggest strengths is his ability to create perfect little vignettes in his songs, the subjects are so real you can imagine being friends with them in real life, or maybe even place yourself right there in the song. From the melancholic opening couplet in ‘The New Year,’ ‘so this is the new year/and I don’t feel any different’ to the wry observation at the start of ‘Title and Registration’ to the celestial inquiries of ‘Passenger Seat,’ Gibbard is excellent throughout and gives some standout vocal performances. The runs on ‘Death of an Interior Decorator’ and the falsetto on ‘Passenger Seat’ are standouts to me specifically.
To get a bit more personal, though, “Transatlanticism” has been a balm for me whenever I needed it, whether it joined me to commemorate the unremarkable passage of time with ‘The New Year,’ or opined immense distance as I moved across the country with “Transatlanticism,” or just commiserated with me on the intensely personal sketches ‘Title and Registration’ and ‘A Lack of Color.’ They could even get heavier when they needed to, on the seething ‘Tiny Vessels’ and the driving (figuratively and literally!) ‘We Looked Like Giants,’ if I happened to be in a seething or otherwise dejected mood. “Transatlanticism” is not a ‘feel-good’ album in any objective way, but it’s always the one I’ll turn to if I’m looking to feel better.