Happy 15th Anniversary to Death Cab for Cutie’s fourth studio album Transatlanticism, originally released October 7, 2003.
The album that helps a band cross over from indie favorite to pop success is often the one that defines their sound the best. This sentiment rings especially true for Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism. Their fourth studio album, the 2003 indie rock staple is a perfect amalgamation of their Pacific Northwest grunge smoothed out by singer Ben Gibbard’s gentle pop vocals.
Transatlanticism is a concept album, examining the tension of long-distance romance. With a generic love story and crystalline moments of feeling, the key to Death Cab’s crossover appeal came compliments of teen soap The OC. The band was featured on the show and their songs would kick off their long run of primetime television relevance.
Released less than a year after Gibbard and bandmate Chris Walla’s electronic project The Postal Service surfaced, there are hints of simple snares and flashy production tricks that help to round out Death Cab’s original sound. The album’s bookends, “The New Year” and “A Lack of Color,” are reminiscent of The Photo Album (2001), Transatlanticism’s predecessor. The songs are different ends of the spectrum, raucous guitars for the former and angelic acoustics on the latter, but each is perfectly representative of Gibbard and Walla’s enchanting songwriting alchemy.
The title track “Transatlanticism” is an 8-minute slow burn, swelling with emotions until the plea of “I need you so much closer” that Gibbard sings throughout transforms from a whiny request to high-emotion chorus of searing heartbreak. The plodding pace creates drama where Gibbard’s vocals leave off, led by meticulous percussions and creative production flourishes.
Recorded primarily in their home state of Washington, Transatlanticism is a nostalgic album imbued with sentimentality. They write songs about a moment in time, with carefully set scenes to build an atmosphere. A piano-driven song of reflection and solitude, “Passenger Seat” is so perfectly evocative of a forest on a cold winter’s night, the term “pastoral” comes to mind. “We Looked Like Giants,” a song full of personal details, feels like a universal anthem of young love squandered.
Despite the general heaviness, Transatlanticism also features their first big hit. “The Sound of Settling” is a hand-clap filled pop song, complete with a sing-along worthy chorus of “bop-bah.” Bright and joyful, the song shares a charming, genial quality of early aughts indie rock, like Belle & Sebastian and The Shins. The most buoyant spot on the album, any warm feelings quickly dissipate with the following track, “Tiny Vessels.”
“Tiny Vessels,” an anthem for navel-gazing young men coping with life’s injustices, comes with an edge not seen in much of Death Cab’s music. When Gibbard sneers, “you are beautiful, but it doesn’t mean a thing to me,” the restraint in his rage and unyielding self-righteousness conjure the image of the beleaguered “nice guy.” It’s one of the more complicated songs in Death Cab’s catalog, maintaining a provocative intensity over 15 years.
Before Transatlanticism, Death Cab hadn’t really been leaning into the “rock” side of indie rock. On this album, their pop sound becomes fully realized, hooky and mixed to perfection. There are ambitious moments, where the group digs a little deeper into noisy arrangements, like “Tiny Vessels” and “We Looked Like Giants.” Balance this grit with lush, sprawling songs of beauty (“Transatlanticism,” “Passenger Seat,” or “A Lack of Color”) and it makes a fabulously complex pop album.