Classic Music Review: Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie

October has always been a month of change for me, and as Peter Marris wrote years ago, all change involves loss.

I think the pattern was implanted in my brain thanks to baseball. October features the excitement of the playoffs and the World Series, but when the last out is recorded I always feel a sense of loss, knowing that Spring Training is five long, cold months away. April has never been the cruelest month for me, as the sounds of fastballs exploding into catcher’s mitts or flying off the bats of sharp-eyed hitters fills me with joy and reassurance. The endless cycle of yin and yang continues, and all is right in the universe.

One October ten years ago, I moved to Seattle. After several years of fucking around (literally and figuratively), I finally found work in a company with French operations, one of the criteria I always kept in mind when I entered the workforce after college because I wanted to live in France someday. Because the company happened to be in Seattle, I had to leave behind my birthplace, my childhood home, the stomping grounds I had known all my life and the comfort of having my best friends and parents close by. The sense of loss was tempered for the first month because Dad and Maman stayed with me most of October as we fixed up our little fixer-upper during the daylight hours and spent the evenings watching the playoffs and the Series. Maman left after the Red Sox swept the Rockies, and Dad departed about a week later.

As I was driving home after dropping him off at the airport, I never felt so lonely in my life.

Things didn’t get any better. I knew no one in Seattle except my aunt, and Seattle people are very hard to get to know. The place is an introvert’s dream, a culture built around superficial pleasantries and small cliques of close friends who want nothing to do with newcomers—especially Californians. Most of the women at work hated me from the start because I was pretty, well-dressed and wore make-up to work. Most of the men found me intimidating because of my assertive tendencies. I’m sure it didn’t help that I thought they were all pretty fucking weird, as it’s likely that my feelings about them leaked through my pretty-girl façade.

And then there was the rain, month after month of cloudy, shitty days. It’s the kind of environment that forces you into one of two states: lingering depression or deep self-reflection. While I flirted with depression, I still had enough in reserve to try to make the best of my circumstances, so I opted for self-study. I had kept a diary during my nonstop sex years from college to Seattle and spent a good chunk of my time perusing the contents. I’m always inclined to analytics, so I looked for patterns in the hope of discovering something about myself. While I knew I had been promiscuous, I had no idea that during the years 2003-2005 I fucked at least one person every day for five-hundred-and-seventy-three consecutive days.

Joe DiMaggio’s got nothing on me.

Note that the streak excludes days when I was on the rag, which I think is fair. They didn’t ding Joe during his streak when the Yankees had an off-day or a rainout.

While I formed some close friendships through nonstop fucking and various BDSM experiences, most of those interactions were simple transactions, a form of mutual prostitution without money changing hands. During that period, I also had several dates with wealthy male professionals who saw my combination of looks and French manners as features that made me the perfect trophy wife. I was probably thinking more along the lines of “power couple,” but that was only when I felt frustrated with relationships in general and thought my only option in life was the sellout. In reality, despite the constant intimate contact and regular attention, I had been lonely for quite some time, and Dad’s departure on that rainy afternoon was just the exclamation point that put it all in perspective.

Through those dreary months, I found solace in rediscovering music, reclaiming my flute and piano chops and catching up on music I missed during my deliberately chosen sex addict days. There wasn’t much there there in early 21st century music, but I did find an album that captured everything I was thinking and feeling at the time: Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie. We all have albums or songs that have special meaning for us—records that enter our lives at just the right time and say the things that have been simmering inside for months. Transatlanticism did that for me, forming the essential soundtrack of my existence during that first year or so in Seattle, up to and beyond the moment I found my life partner.

In October, of course.

Wikipedia claims that Transatlanticism “features a theme set around long-distance love,” an inaccurate and inadequate interpretation. Transatlanticism deals with multiple manifestations of distance and separation—cultural isolation, denial of individuality in the face of conformist pressures, uncertain roles and yes, romantic failures. Although his writing has faltered since leaving the reflective Northwest for the shared obliviousness of L. A. culture, this was Ben Gibbard at his peak—the guy with glasses and beard stubble approaching topics from unexpected angles, expressing the inexpressible and creating unforgettable and moving imagery. Death Cab was also completely in sync, as Chris Walla, Nick Harmer and Jason McGerr helped compose several of the songs on Transatlanticism, and together, all four worked hard to create subtly supportive arrangements that make superb use of dynamics.

The band’s talent with arrangement is showcased in the opening number, “The New Year.” New Year’s Eve has never been a big deal in my family, and I remember asking my parents about it one New Year’s Eve when we all chose to stay at home. “It used to mean something when time wasn’t so compressed,” my dad observed. “A year used to be a valid marker of time, a capsule of experience. New Year’s Eve gave people a chance to come together and share their memories and hopes for the upcoming year. I can remember when New Year’s Eve wasn’t so much about getting drunk but a time when there was real affection among friends because we made it through another year in one piece.” Rejecting culturally-imposed instructions on when and how to have fun, Ben Gibbard punctures the New Year’s Eve balloons with a vengeance:

So this is the new year
And I don’t feel any different
The clanking of crystal
Explosions off in the distance
In the distance

So this is the new year
And I have no resolutions
For self assigned penance
For problems with easy solutions

So everybody put your best suit or dress on
Let’s make believe that we are wealthy for just this once
Lighting firecrackers off on the front lawn
As thirty dialogues bleed into one

The arrangement through the first two verses is marked by the repeated appearance of two crashing power chords sandwiching a series of dramatic drum fills, a deeply ironic expression of excitement and significance, contradicting the “What the fuck is the big deal?” message of the lyrics. The final power chord is sustained for a few seconds to facilitate a shift to the more direct and insistent music supporting the message of the third verse—“Look at how ridiculous you are, people!” The lyrics then shift to an expression of desired outcome, expanding the issue from one of manufactured silliness to problems in the social fabric that leave things “out of our hands”:

I wish the world was flat like the old days
Then I could travel just by folding a map
No more airplanes, or speed trains, or freeways
There’d be no distance that can hold us back (4)

We are more accessible to each other through technological advances, but in many ways, we are more distant than ever. Physical distance is one thing; cultural and interpersonal distance quite another challenge. You can build all the high-speed transportation options you want, but you’re only bringing people closer in the physical realm, where they will inevitably party as programmed or start fights. Authentic closeness is a small-scale, personal activity, and “The New Year” pointedly attacks the myth of closeness in mass shared experience. The video adds another dimension, highlighting the lives of the working people who have to clean up the New Year’s Eve mess left by those who masquerade as upwardly mobile.

The mood shifts dramatically to the languorous pace of “Lightness,” an arrangement anchored in deep bass growls that form a noticeable contrast to the light and lovely guitar lines and melody. Here the narrator is attracted to a woman with a tear in her dress, and naughty boy that he is, he can’t resist “sneaking glances.” Despite his cleverness, he runs into a barrier of invisible negative vibes: “Looking for the patterns in the static/They start to make sense the longer I’m at it.” As the song progresses, the narrator finds himself paralyzed by both the feeling of impending rejection and culturally-imposed self-doubt:

Oh, instincts are misleading
You shouldn’t think what you’re feeling
They don’t tell you what you know you should want

“Lightness” brings up the issue I struggled with during those flings with upstanding male professionals—what I really wanted (deeply satisfying, honest and creative sex) was not what I should have wanted (because trophy wives are for display, not use). You’ll find out how I resolved the issue below when we get to “Sounds of Settling.”

But first we have to open up the glove compartment and see what’s inside. “Title and Registration” reveals Ben Gibbard’s gift for finding meaning in the mundane: as he rummages through the glove compartment for either his registration or proof of insurance card, he happens upon some old photographs of an old flame. As he told Rolling Stone, “This is a pretty honest portrayal of a real occurrence: I did find an old photo in a glove compartment. When you’re not expecting to run into stuff like that, it affects you the most.” It’s also a pretty accurate portrayal of how true poetry arises from real-life experience more often than not:

The glove compartment is inaccurately named
And everybody knows it
So I’m proposing a swift, orderly change
‘Cause behind its door, there’s nothing to keep my fingers warm
And all I find are souvenirs from better times
Before the gleam of your taillights fading east
To find yourself a better life

Once again, the arrangement is outstanding, grounded in a drum machine pattern that mimics the sound of feet trudging over a gravel path. The guitar part provides clean but melancholy support for the lyrics, and the introduction of the sound of a kid’s xylophone in the instrumental passage preceding the last verse intensifies the poignancy embedded in the obsessive quest to re-name the glove compartment—a childlike response to “disappointment and regret.”

The curiously titled “Expo 86” follows, a story about on-again off-again relationships where “on” means physical intimacy and “off” means “just friends.” As in “Lightness,” the narrator struggles with paralysis, stuck between what to do/not to do and “waiting for something to go wrong.” The song ramps up in intensity through the extended second verse, but here the emotional impact is dissipated by the overly dramatic accusation, “As if you held in your hand the smoking gun/And on the floor lay the one you said you loved.” I’ve always believed that “But you said you loved me” is one of the silliest accusations of all. Language lesson: “I love you” is a sentence in the present tense, meaning “I love you right now.” “I love you forever” is not a statement of fact but an expression of intensity where “forever” is merely an adverb that modifies the verb “love,” which still remains in the present tense. Shorthand: when someone stops loving you, get the fuck over it and move on. Don’t ever make a person feel guilty about changing their feelings.

That advice column is starting to look like a promising path for me . . .

The song I completely connected with on first hearing was “The Sounds of Settling.” It reminded me of an evening I spent trapped in the passenger seat of my date’s top-of-the-line BMW as we drove the back roads to some hoity-toity gathering. For over an hour, I listened to him prattle on about his investments, his boat, his club memberships and his private dwellings in tropical locations. Ben Gibbard described exactly what I was feeling:

I’ve got a hunger twisting my stomach into knots
That my tongue has tied off
My brain’s repeating, “If you’ve got an impulse, let it out.”
But they never make it past my mouth
Bop bah
This is the sound of settling

Unaware that he was dealing with a woman raised as a socialist and proud of it, my well-heeled friend suggested that I accompany him to Jamaica the following month, as he was planning to stay in one of those compounds for the filthy rich protected by armed guards and barbed-wire fences to keep the riffraff (i. e, poor black people) out of sight and mind. At that point I could no longer restrain my impulses and let him fucking have it using all the delightfully crude language I could muster . . . Oops!

Our youth is fleeting
Old age is just around the bend
And I can’t wait to go grey
And I’ll sit and wonder
Of every love that could have been
If I’d only thought of something charming to say
Bop bah
This is the sound of settling

If only, if only . . . Today I could be worthless and wealthy had I said, “That would be mah-velous, dah-ling,” instead of “Did you ever think of using your filthy fucking money to help people instead of spending it just to show everyone what a self-important prick you are?” “The Sounds of Settling” arrived in my lap as a tonic to steel myself against settling for a relationship solely to solve the loneliness problem. The gently mocking, ironically jolly tone of the song had a piercing effect on me, reinforcing the notion that settling for less than what you need and want would likely turn into a bad joke at my expense.

Those dates with boring, wealthy but handsome men also put me face to face with “the man of my dreams” myth. Here were these gorgeous, well-heeled, educated (technically speaking) men who wanted to share their lives with me, put me on a pedestal, care for my every need and fulfill my every material whim. Why the fuck am I not getting wet when they’re kissing me and fondling my tits? “Tiny Vessels” gave me the answer in stark, unapologetic terms:

This is the moment that you know
That you told you loved her but you don’t.
You touch her skin and then you think
That she is beautiful but she don’t mean a thing to me.
Yeah, she is beautiful, but she don’t mean a thing to me.

It sounds like Ben had a somewhat more interesting sexual experience than I did with my dates, but that too proved to be ephemeral:

And every bite I gave you left a mark.
Tiny vessels oozed into your neck
And formed the bruises,
That you said you didn’t want to fade,
But they did and so did I that day.

“Tiny Vessels” isn’t so much a relationship song as it is a song of self-discovery, and in this case the self-discovery is brutal:

So one last touch and then you’ll go.
And we’ll pretend that it meant something so much more,
But it was vile, and it was cheap.
And you are beautiful, but you don’t mean a thing to me

Most of the arrangement communicates tenderness, making “Tiny Vessels” more moving than it may appear on paper. The slow arpeggiated guitar patterns create a lovely if melancholy mood, reflecting a sense of self-disgust on the part of the narrator for having led this woman on. The mid-song shift involves a massive increase in distortion, both in the vocal and on the guitars, reflecting an even deeper frustration with self (and other). “Tiny Vessels” is an emotional powerhouse of a song, a snapshot of a person caught between self-blame and blame of the other, a common experience for all who choose to love for the wrong reasons.

In a brilliant move, the closing percussion pattern of “Tiny Vessels” becomes the opening pattern for “Transatlanticism,” the definitive song about human separation. I have to confess that thanks to the capability of iTunes to select and reorder tracks to my liking, my Transatlanticism playlist for my iPod moves “Tiny Vessels” and “Transatlanticism” to the end of the album. If there’s one criticism I have of Transatlanticism, it is the inexplicable decision to place the title track in the relatively unimportant seventh slot instead of the closing position. “Transatlanticism” is the perfect closing number in so many ways—it features an intensely dramatic build, it summarizes the essence of the album’s primary themes and it ends with a thrilling sense of celebration. Its impact as a closing number has been tried and tested in many a Death Cab concert, providing an almost spiritual, uplifting conclusion to the set.

Despite my feelings on the matter, I have an ethical obligation to follow the track order of the original release, but I do so under protest and intend to file an official protest with the Commissioner of Music.

Ironically, I really didn’t appreciate “Transatlanticism” until I met my life partner in October 2008, during a business conference in Chicago. To make a long story short (unusual for me, I know), we connected after hours and both of us sensed something was coming that would change our lives forever. We did face many obstacles (another long story), but the most problematic was geography. We lived as far away from each other as is possible within the United States: me in Seattle, she in Miami. As our love and interest intensified over Skype, email and too-infrequent visits, the anguish became almost overwhelming for us.

Ben Gibbard is a better poet than I, so he begins his ode to relational distance with an extended metaphor, a rumination on the perpetual human conflict between wanting our own space and our longing for intimacy:

The Atlantic was born today and I’ll tell you how
The clouds above opened up and let it out
I was standing on the surface of a perforated sphere
When the water filled every hole
And thousands upon thousands made an ocean
Making islands where no island should go
Oh no

The music during this verse is stark and simple: the continuation of the percussive pattern enhanced by simple piano chords. A strummed Dsus2 chord intensifies the “No,” followed by a fascinating riff that I would describe as the musical equivalent of a question mark, a pair of triplets set in a pattern of A-C#m-Dsus2 differentiated by a flattened octave note on the first pass. It’s a sound that mimics uncertainty and concern about the growing opportunities for distance in this new world.

The second verse adds a background layer of synthetic strings and guitar touches to intensify the build. Here, life-essential water becomes a symbol of the obstacles in life that create distance and make intimacy more of an effort than it should be:

Most people were overjoyed, they took to their boats
I thought it less like a lake and more like a moat
The rhythm of my footsteps
Crossing flatlands to your door
Have been silenced forevermore
The distance is quite simply
Much too far for me to row
It seems farther than ever before
Oh no

On this rendition of “no,” an insistent, forward movement appears, driving largely by piano but solidly supported by drum and bass, music reflecting the resolve of the narrator as he faces an unacceptable set of circumstances. The line is repeated several times, a simple and direct bit of language that succinctly and powerfully expresses the feeling we experience when the person we love is far, far away:

I need you so much closer
I need you so much closer
I need you so much closer
I need you so much closer

At one point in our relationship, our forced-by-circumstance separation was becoming an experience of unbearable anguish, so one night I sent Alicia an email with no subject line and no text . . . just an mp3 of “Transatlanticism.” An hour later we spent another hour crying with each other over the phone in shared angst, making the distance a tiny bit more bearable.

A long passage built on the A-C#m-Dsus2 emphasizing the power chord and question mark phrase follows, the intensity increasing very gradually through a combination of subtle instrument and percussion variation; Jason McGerr’s cymbals in this passage are a masterpiece of discipline and feel for dynamic highlights. Four repetitions of “I need you so much closer” follow; these lead to a brief but much more powerful reprise of the dominant chord pattern that sets up the unbelievably uplifting appearance of male choral voices joined together in the simple exhortation, “Come on!” I always get the chills at this point, and leave the song feeling some sense of hope that the pain of separation need not last forever.

Tough song to follow, but I will give Death Cab credit for shifting the lyrical tone with the pleasant story depicted in “Passenger Seat.” The arrangement here is soft piano and background synth, a soundscape of pure tenderness. The core couplet, “When you feel embarrassed, then I’ll be your pride/When you need directions, I’ll be your guide” is somewhat compromised by the dissonant chord pair backing the appendage, “For all time,” indicating either unspoken fragility in the relationship or a sad reminder that there is no such thing as forever.

Ben Gibbard is a pretty good poet when he’s on, but he does have a tendency to get too English major for my tastes (odd, because he studied Engineering at Western Washington), and the next two songs suffer because of it. Jason McGerr opens the waltz, “Death of an Interior Decorator” with some nifty drum and hi-hat work, and though the song has some nice harmonies, this piece about a middle-aged woman dumped by the hubby and left to raise three daughters never comes together for me—the rebirth scene where she walks into the angry sea places the song in the “overwrought” category. It’s followed my another clunker, “We Looked Like Giants,” which starts out in a promising manner in relative quiet with superb bass work by Nick Harmer, but turns into an awkward bash that shatters the generally tranquil mood of the album.

Death Cab makes a last-minute save with “A Lack of Color,” a depiction of that moment in our lives when we realize too late that we should have been more genuine and vulnerable in a relationship instead of engaging in manipulative, protective courtship rituals. The rhythmic movement is provided by a very simple finger-picked pattern that stands in stark contrast to the background noise reminiscent of a factory or the roar of a not-too-distant freeway. Ben’s vocal is enhanced with beautiful spot harmonies that reinforce the desire for coupling, but alas, it ain’t gonna happen and Ben knows it’s his own damned fault:

This is fact not fiction
For the first time in years
All the girls in every girlie magazine
Can’t make me feel any less alone
I’m reaching for the phone
To call at 7:03 and on your machine
I slur a plea for you to come home
But I know it’s too late
And I should have given you a reason to stay
Given you a reason to stay

Edith Piaf was so full of shit when she sang, “Non, je ne regrette rien.” A well-understood and accepted regret is one of the most powerful learning experiences known to humankind, and the power of regret to reinforce life’s lessons is unparalleled (unless you choose to live there all the time).

Though there are a few songs I’m not particularly fond of, Transatlanticism is a wonderful listening experience, personal attachments aside. With its clean and simple arrangements, often moving poetry and a tight, collaborative group of musicians trying to make the best music they could, the essential artistry of Transatlanticism is undeniable. Death Cab would raise the bar even higher with the courageous and intensely moving Plans, where Ben Gibbard dealt with the very difficult subject of human mortality. What I love about both albums is the obvious commitment to truth-telling, the insistent urge to blast through cultural myths and attempt to uncover the existential truth of human experience. In a world where truth has become cheapened by the distortions of the angry and frightened, that is one hell of a noble effort.

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