October 13, 2003

Abandoning pop for rock, Death Cab finds the heartache in separation

If you haven't heard of Death Cab for Cutie, you've been missing out. Simply put, it has been one of the best and most consistent bands on the indie scene in the last five years. It is also widely considered to be the jewel of the West Coast indie pop scene (see: Mates of State and Dismemberment Plan from the Midwest and East Coast, respectively). Additionally, Ben Gibbard's side project with electronic wizard Jimmy Tamborello (of Dntel fame), The Postal Service, put out one of the best albums of 2003, its debut Give Up. Death Cab's Transatlanticism, its first album since 2001's The Photo Album, has had Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-caliber expectations to live up to. Fortunately, Death Cab has gone and exceeded these expectations.

If there has been one flaw in Death Cab's work output in the past, it's that its style has never evolved to any great extent. However, from the first measure of "The New Year," the first track on Transatlanticism, you know that this is a new band. Distorted, Crazy Horse-style guitars jangle over a schizophrenic drum line that could come directly from a Dismemberment Plan song, while Ben Gibbard sings through an expansive reverb wash, "So this is the new year/And I don't feel any different." Here the prevalent themes of Transatlanticism—the distances, both metaphorical and physical, between an individual and the people close to him—are first introduced. He sings, "I wish the world was flat like in the old days/Then I could travel just by folding a map . . . /There'd be no distance that could hold us back."

Surprisingly, the traditional pop concessions seem to be all but stripped away. When Gibbard sings "Ooh, wah-ho's" on "Lightness," it seems more in jest than anything else. Of course, Gibbard's impossibly endearing voice is still there, but there seems to be another layer of sadness added on. The romanticism has been pulled back a notch as well, replaced with lines like the callous, "You touch her skin and then you think/That she is beautiful but she don't mean a thing to me." All the songs have washes of noise in the background, and the guitar is much more organic than on Death Cab's past records. "Title and Registration" features a nylon-string guitar line, and most of the songs feature acoustic guitars or true blue pianos, unlike the traditional Death Cab keyboards.

The real star on this album is the title track, which is, quite frankly, the best thing Death Cab for Cutie has ever done. At nearly eight minutes, it's quite an epic by their standards, with most of the songs on previous albums hovering around the three-minute mark. "Transatlanticism" starts out with a dissonant synthesizer-type drum line and delicate piano chords, followed by the introduction of an equally delicate guitar line. The song also serves as the thematic center of the album, as befits a title track. Gibbard sings that "The distance is quite simply much too far for me to row/It seems farther than ever before," after which the real drums enter the song in a slow buildup with the line "I need you so much closer" repeated every measure. Finally, after what seems like endless suspense, massive reverb-drenched guitars come in, while huge triple-tracked vocals repeatedly implore "So come on/Come on."

In a few places, Gibbard's lyrics get a bit too cute, and his metaphors get over-extended. "Title and Registration" starts with the cumbersome lyric "The glove compartment isn't accurately named/And everybody knows it/So I'm proposing a swift orderly change." The song itself is just fine, with a Postal Service-type backbeat composed of handclaps. However, I wish Gibbard had chosen another way to begin the song. "A Lack of Color" shows similar lyrical clumsiness in the intro with the lyric "And when I see you/I really see you upside down/But my brain knows better/It picks you up and turns you around." However, he redeems himself in the same song with the last line of the album, "This is fact not fiction/For the first time in years."

I have to say that I'm a bit sad to see the Death Cab of Something About Airplanes and The Photo Album move on. But it is nice to see a band that hasn't grown complacent with its sound in the face of imminent popularity. The band could have simply made another Photo Album, and I, for one, would have eaten it up. But the band wants to change, even by giving up what people love about them. And Transatlanticism is quite a way to do it.