I can’t remember a January 1 since I was fifteen years old where I haven’t listened to Death Cab for Cutie’s The New Year. The glimmering track encapsulates the band’s multiplicities: at once hopeless and hopeful, nihilistic and nostalgic. Hearing the song for the first time as a teenager filled me with a feeling I didn’t have a name for.
A decade and a half on, it holds up – as does the album it opens, Transatlanticism. Nestled in Death Cab’s discography at the exact point between small-time indie and major label success, the record remains the sound of a band finding its perfect footing.
Transatlanticism arrived at a turning point for indie rock in the mainstream, aided in no small part by Death Cab’s immortalisation in pop culture history on The OC, from an album poster on fictional teen Seth Cohen’s bedroom wall to a live performance on the show (it was the attention from The OC that got Death Cab signed to a major label). While indie music had previously been inaccessible to the masses, suddenly it was front and centre – alongside bands like Modest Mouse and The Shins, Death Cab found a whole new audience, largely teenaged, hungry for music that was sensitive, emotional and different. We needed music that felt like it spoke directly to us, away from the soulless sparkle that dominated the airwaves.
Building on the crunchy hooks of The Photo Album, but giving them a smoother sheen, Transatlanticism’s eleven songs range from bite-sized pop bangers (The Sound of Settling – possibly the band’s first truly radio-ready track with one hell of a guitar line, two minutes of pop perfection) to sprawling pieces like the title track, an eight-minute beast that marries guitar, piano, singer Ben Gibbard’s reverb-drenched vocals ruminating on long-distance longing and a cinematic build, heavily focused on instrumentals, that peaks and then dies again just as quickly. It was on this record that Death Cab set the blueprint that they’d expand on with subsequent albums – bigger hooks, more ambitious ideas – and the inspiration for so many young indie bands who followed them.
There’s a quiet curiosity, and occasional calamity, on the songs of Transatlanticism that feels specific to the adolescent experience of first love, from ugly carelessness disguised as romance (Tiny Vessels – all bands take note, this song is a masterclass in dynamic builds and drops) to illusions of intimacy (We Looked Like Giants). Gibbard’s lyrics are meticulously constructed and often veiled in metaphor, yet feel intensely personal – the teenagers listening to them back in 2003 may not have experienced the phenomena they described, but felt them acutely anyway. Those teenagers are adults now; listening back to those songs now brings new stabs of recognition that are almost painful.
So much more, too, can be gleaned of the meaning of Transatlanticism’s songs by listening to the demo version of the album, re-released for the tenth anniversary in 2013. While much of the record’s beauty lies in Chris Walla’s production and the band’s inventive instrumentation, the demos remind that Death Cab began as a solo project for Gibbard, and when the songs are laid bare, the emotion shines raw. Death Cab was always a band about the unashamed earnestness of feeling.
Transatlanticism shares a birth year with Give Up, the first and only record from The Postal Service, Gibbard’s collaboration with Dntel. Give Up showcases another side of Gibbard’s songwriting, with its electronic influence audible still on Death Cab’s latest release, this year’s Thank You For Today. Listening to both these records in 2018 brings a dizzy wave of memory and a palpable sense of relief – both albums are enjoyable to listen back to not only for the nostalgia hit, but because they are genuinely exceptional recordings that showcase a skilled and diverse songwriter on the rise.