Listening to Death Cab for Cutie‘s newest album, Transatlanticism, somehow evokes the sensations of all the seasons: the icy stillness of winter, the frostiness of early spring mornings, summer’s heavy night air, and the first smell of cold. This album, which hits stores on the 7th of October, encompasses all the beauty and change that goes along with the death and birth of each season. The first track is even called “The New Year”.
Since the band’s inception in the late ’90s, Death Cab have produced three of the most critically acclaimed indie albums in recent history. something about airplanes, We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, and The Photo Album received so much hype and praise that the pressure for this new album must have been damn near smothering. However, unlike many bands who experience early success and then burn out by their second or third release, some musicians get considerably better at their craft as they get older. With singer Ben Gibbard now in his mid-20s, and the rest of the band pushing 30, the men of Death Cab have had a few years to refine and develop their quirky-but-heartfelt indie-pop. Transatlanticism, their fourth full-length of new material, is the high point of their short career, a high point that could potentially keep rising. Do I even need to say how exciting that is?
Starting out with one of the album’s strongest tracks, “The New Year”, the band reminisces about simpler times with an endearing narrative. Gibbard sings about not having a resolution for this year and not having problems with easy solutions. With jangling guitars and an energetic rhythm that brings to mind travel on open roads, Gibbard captures that sense of nostalgia perfectly in lines like, “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”.
The next two tracks feature spare instrumentation, with only a beat and some ambient bass lines on “Lightness”, and a drum machine and plucked guitar melody on “Title and Registration”. The emphasis is clearly on Gibbard’s stark lyrics, especially on “Title and Registration”, during which he gives us his theory on the misnomer of the glove compartment. “The glove compartment isn’t accurately 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”.
Death Cab’s lyrics have been cause for both praise and criticism, mainly because of their simplicity. They tell stories and describe in blunt detail the activities people undertake every day of their lives. 2001’s The Photo Album was filled with these snapshots, most notably on the deadbeat dad rant, “Styrofoam Plates”. There, Gibbard rages about the father figure that’s being honored at his funeral even though he was jerk. “You’re a disgrace to the concept of family / The priest won’t divulge that fact in his homily / And I’ll stand up and scream if the mourning remain quiet / You can deck out a lie in a suit but I won’t buy it”. The combination of straight-forward storytelling and Gibbard’s boyish and wistful voice telling that story makes for a powerful juxtaposition. Add to that the lush-but-never-overproduced pop sound brought by the rest of the band and you’ve got serious pop honesty.
I like that sound, and so do many others, though some critics have said that the lyrics border on ridiculous. This is most certainly true on Transatlanticism‘s “Death of an Interior Decorator”. Rambling on about a wedding that didn’t go according to plan and how “it felt just like falling in love again”, Gibbard doesn’t make much sense and also assaults the listener when his fragile voice exceeds its range. This is the album’s one weak spot, but that’s remedied as soon as “We Looked Like Giants” starts.
This song has a very “Boys of Summer” nostalgia to it, from the melancholy urgency in Gibbard’s voice to guitarist Chris Walla’s high-speed and borderline-desperate riffs. Coupled with lines like, “Every Thursday I’d break those mountain passes / And you’d skip your early classes and we’d learn how our bodies worked”, and “We looked like giants in the back of my gray subcompact / Fumbling to make contact”, this song is a sprawling reminder of what it’s like to be driven by lust. Mmmm, hormones.
Transatlanticism‘s versatility shows in the contrast between tracks like “We Looked like Giants” and the acoustic strummer right after it. It shows in the two-and-a-half minute “The Sound of Settling” — a warning about the pitfalls of growing old — and the soulful title track — an eight-minute epic ending in a chorus begging a missing person to come home. The most beautiful moment on the album occurs during “Passenger Seat” — a piano-driven soul tune about a perfect moment of silence during a nighttime journey.
Despite this versatility, the album’s theme emerges like a cold draft seeping in through window panes — subtle but unmistakable. And that’s the passage of time, the changing of seasons. The landscape of Transatlanticism is scattered with scenes of nostalgia and longing, pauses for reflection and self-examination, and headlong forays into bouts of desire and depression. This album is a beautiful trek through time that pays tribute to the human condition with simple melodies and honest storytelling, a nearly perfect pop record.