As Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism turns 10, a certain chunk of young adults—maybe professionals, some still managing to avoid it at this point—might be having their first startling symptoms of the highly contagious, easily transmitted “Man, I feel old” virus. It’s spread for every generation that came before, with Nevermind- or Ten-raised music devotees sick at the thought of 20-year re-issues, or Baby Boomers begrudgingly shelling out the big bucks (because they can afford it!) for the Stones’ 50th b-day.
These things are bound to happen. And for the MySpace Music-educated generation—the same that readily spreads ‘90s Nickelodeon-friendly nostalgia across your Facebook feed—this year presents a chance to look back on one of the most significant releases a budding young indie band had to offer. (For the sake of transparency here, this is definitely the first album I have ever gifted to a girlfriend. So here, I’d fit in what we in the industry like to call the “target audience” for this reissue.) And after a decade, tours from Seattle to across the world and back, an OC appearance that didn’t tarnish their indie cred, documentaries and solo albums, Death Cab for Cutie’s breakout album Transatlanticism still sounds really, pretty good on your turntable without even considering a calendar year.
Let’s take stock of what was blowing up around it in similar circles: Omaha, Neb.’s Saddle Creek records was exploding; Cursive’s The Ugly Organ sold way more than anyone could imagine off the strength of “Art is Hard” and “The Recluse,” and Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning was just a few sparse chords in its creator’s fingertips. The Decemberists had only just released Her Majesty the Decemberists, and Death Cab’s label, Barsuk, was on fire from the release of two other darling-level pieces of work that year—Nada Surf’s Let Go and The Long Winters’ When I Pretend to Fall. The Shins’ Oh, Inverted World had been out for years but still had not yet changed any lives on-screen.
For me, these were the salad days of emo-tinged (or lazily lumped-in-with-emo) indie-rock, and out of all of the stuff going on in 2003 (much of which I still love and hold near and dear to me) Transatlanticism best stands the test of time. And it was able to translate to an audience that was bigger than the Indie Regulars Club or teens searching for catharsis in front of their computers. From Jason McGerr’s deceptively complex timekeeping for “The New Year” to the spare, eloquent tale of love gone long-distance in “Transatlanticism” (“I need you so much closer,” said everyone in a long-distance relationship, ever.) to Ben Gibbard’s cold-as-shit summer love yarn on “Tiny Vessels” to the satisfying tie-up of discontent that is “A Lack of Color,” Death Cab’s 2003 effort doesn’t fall short of perfect after a decade of meditating on it. Guitarist/producer Chris Walla’s spot-on production comes through clear as ever, letting the songs (and not a date, or production style like on the reverb-caked We Have the Facts…) shine through. Transatlanticism’s tracks stand as just that—and not highly stylized points in time.
Death Cab “the band” is in prime form as a whole, with Gibbard’s pen alternating between Bukowksi-direct and lofty, ambitious paths. Walla’s production finally hits a totally comfortable stride after the massive, lush improvement that was The Photo Album. Here, McGerr is a classy, suit-the-song drum great and bassist Nick Harmer wanders through the low register while still keeping his parts tuned toward melody. And while the band has hit a creative groove, it’s Gibbard’s own leaps forward that should be applauded. Just look at the unmistakable melodies—that turned into radio hits—for this one. “Title and Registration.” “Transatlanticism.” “The New Year.” “The Sound of Settling.” The album’s hooks are like a really substantial—I don’t know, whole-grain-crusted—pie: There’s enough sweetness to please you immediately, but after consumption you feel satisfied and not shitty about yourself for loving it.
But maybe what’s my favorite about this box set is listening to the rough drafts—there’s a demo of every song on the deluxe edition—of Transatlanticism songs. Here, Walla is the assumed star in picking/choosing what to take versus what to leave behind. At its most extreme, look at “Transatlanticism,” a demo that features distracting, whirling (read: annoying, non-stop) keyboards. Yes—the bare-bones of the songs are there, and Gibbard’s penned a true classic…But the demos prove the band hasn’t fully realized it yet. With Walla’s production, with the band’s help, you turn to “Transatlanticism: The Finished Song,” and we’re left with a classy masterstroke. As proved in most of Transatlanticism‘s demos, Gibbard might provide the meat of the presentation here, but Walla and Co. craft this into the desired presentation. I could go on, but I also have a word count to look out for here.
The point is, in a period that can be defined by densely compressed production and melodramatic lyrics, Death Cab’s Transatlanticism looks past that and turns its gaze toward songwriting that’ll stand up longer. Instead, it stands as a set of songs—all grand, beautiful, unforgettable—that many fans will carry with them throughout the decades.
Listen to Death Cab For Cutie’s Daytrotter session here.