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I'll Give You Something to Cry About

A personal look at the 20th-anniversary edition of Death Cab for Cutie's mammoth fourth record

On May 18, 2023
Photo by Justin Dylan Renney and Jenny Jimenez

The test of time is a curious principle to apply to the assessment of rock ’n’ roll records. 

Not to say it isn’t natural, enjoyable and probably inevitable to wonder how the passage of years has changed the cultural value of old records. Of course it is. At least it was. The question of whether albums and artists of yesteryear “hold up” has always been part of the conversation. 

And then came the 21st century, when conversation, like Elvis before it, has left the building.  

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In 2023, contemplating time’s effect has had on any single artwork seems sort of credulous in the shadow of the more immediate predicament, to wit: the way the nature and function of time itself has changed so dramatically. How can we discuss whether a record stands the test of time when we can’t agree on the meaning of the word time, to say nothing of the word meaning? It feels a bit like admiring the architectural integrity of a building without pausing to note that the building in question happens to be on fire and sliding into the sea. 

Luckily for the liner notes to a deluxe anniversary reissue of a record that has been an imperishable mile marker in the emotional landscape of millions of people from the moment it was released, different rules apply.  

Transatlanticism was released on Oct. 7, 2003. It was Death Cab for Cutie’s fourth album, and the first to bring them to the attention of an audience beyond the comparatively underground community of indie rock adepts they’d been playing to with notable, incremental, success for the first five years of their existence. “Existence,” as opposed to “career.” A career was what they had after, and to a large extent because of, the success — in both scale and style — Transatlanticism enjoyed. Because you’re reading this, odds are good you already know this story, which is fortunate, because it spares these notes the duty of having to dwell overmuch on the extra-musical media details that aligned to make both the record and the band attractive to an audience unused to having to seek out music made by bands that were not yet, or never in the running to be, famous. 

The short version: The writers of a popular TV series called The O.C. decided to make one of the characters the kind of guy who was a fan of bands viewers of the show were unlikely to be familiar with. The show wasn’t so big that the mere mention of the words “Death Cab” in an episode made them overnight sensations, but that mention did flip a certain switch that only television can flip, and the ensuing glow turned a lot of heads. It led to the band appearing on the show, which raised their profile enough to propel them into the realm of bands mainstream audiences (not to mention radio programmers, music supervisors and major label executives) felt compelled to know more about. Momentum gathered. 

Though a seemingly unlikely candidate for the embrace of a mass audience, indie rock was culturally ascendant in 2003. Lots of bands with underground-adjacent bona fides, seasoned from years of low-budget touring and recording, were trading vans for buses and trying brighter spotlights on for size. The moment was ripe for Death Cab for Cutie to emerge. Transatlanticism proved to be the ideal passport.

The years that followed cemented its status as the definitive Death Cab for Cutie album, the one that most clearly revealed the band’s essence, the one held dearest by the greatest number of fans. But it meant very different things to two very different groups of listeners: early adopters who’d already established a relationship with the band, and the much larger contingent for whom Transatlanticism was year zero. The perceived divide between these factions is an all-time classic rock ’n’ roll trope — R.E.M. at the dawn of Green is an apt analogy — that emphasized two essential parts of the story: the magnitude of the band’s shifting reality, and the deeply personal nature of people’s connection to the music. 

However alarming it may have been to have to share their love with so many undifferentiated normals, even the stodgiest original fans understood that Death Cab hadn’t really changed (that would only happen years later). They were just playing on a bigger stage.

From the vantage of now, the early 2000s seem like pre-history. The list of “befores” alone is pretty impressive: It was before social media began to ransom privacy and warp self-expression into a perpetual burlesque of performed selves. Before every film and record ever made was available for “free” at all times and before it was impossible to pick something to watch or listen to. Before politics stopped pretending it wasn’t show business. Before show business stopped pretending it was interested in art. Before big tech hijacked them both and reduced all human creative endeavor to “content.” Before hyperbole was the default mode of human discourse. Before everything was only ever worse.

Most of all, it was before the smartphone. 

Phones were in everyone’s pockets by then (even conscientious objectors had fallen in line), but they didn’t yet contain a condensed version of all human knowledge. Texting was brand new, and a chore. The games weren’t good. Some had cameras, but the photos they took were junk, and sharing them was an ordeal. All of which conspired to make this the last phase of human history recorded primarily by the oldest and most flawed media conglomerate of all: human memory. 

The proliferation of even those rudimentary phones had already begun to alter the human consciousness by ensuring that everyone, everywhere, would always be connected to everyone else, everywhere else, every minute of every day. It was the birth of constant stimulation, and the death of a certain kind of solitude. Whatever else happened, we had all officially become reachable. Which, interestingly, was around the same time we all started having such difficulty reaching one another. 

It’s worth considering the context into which Transatlanticism was born for a couple of reasons: First, because you needn’t look too hard to detect in that era the roots of the fractiousness, division and anomie that define so much of life in 2023. Second, and more to the point, when reflecting on the factors that have helped make this album so durable and so beloved, it would be perverse to ignore how much more alienating and alienated the world has become since it was released. The rising tide of inequity, depredation and catastrophe — and the increased awareness of our seeming powerlessness individually and as a species to stem it — has nurtured a deep yearning for art that does more than distract or divert. Art that matters.

Mattering, as both subject and object, was the animating principle of Transatlanticism. The impulse began with the band deciding to embrace their creative and professional ambition, risk losing their place on the tour-record-tour treadmill (as addressed obliquely in “Expo ‘86”) and commit to making a record that required more time, money and effort than any they’d made previously. It then manifested in the music, which dealt with the consequences of failing to recognize what matters, of having no option but to endure the full impact of proper, adult-scale loss while yearning to break free of the failings that led to it. And it extended to the audience: These songs sounded an extraordinarily deep note among a generational cohort of listeners who were on the verge or in the midst of the same process. 

Transatlanticism immediately entered the canon of records that changed everything for both the band and a good chunk of its audience, and there it has remained. 

The album’s success — especially when combined with his extraordinary work on the Postal Service album Give Up, released just nine months earlier — cemented guitarist/songwriter Ben Gibbard’s status as the laureate of the quarter-life crisis. The thematic terrain was hardly a departure, but the marriage of candor and insight in these songs made it clear that his gift for illuminating the dark psychic corners in the house of love had advanced dramatically. 

For evidence of this progress, try back-to-backing “Blacking Out the Friction” from The Photo Album and “Title and Registration” sometime. Same theme, same dilemma, same people, even. But the guy in the former song (a gem, make no mistake) offers passive-aggression and affected indifference in response to the pending separation, where the latter opens the door to the type of undramatized self-examination that can only follow the kind of loss that really unmoors you. 

He then takes it further, by way of the famously tricksy device of the glove compartment name complaint, to confess his culpability in that loss, and to declare his (not-so-familiar) resolve not to be that way anymore — “’cause it’s too important to stay the way it’s been.” As though the song’s true subject is regret for the callow posturing in the earlier song, the earlier self. The armored sneer of a young guy who truly didn’t understand what was at stake is unmasked by his slightly older self, alone in a car full of old photos to remind him.  

Because they cover such heavy emotional terrain, and because fewer and fewer humans seem able to fathom the capacity of language to be figurative, a lot of people mistake songs like these for pages torn from diaries and stapled onto setlists. The irony of Gibbard’s increased notoriety as a singer of lyrics that people get tattooed on their arms and melodies that haunt your reveries is that it kind of concealed his growing virtuosity as a writer.

The words and perspectives Gibbard enlists in the effort to explore rather than simply evince gnarly feelings often correspond more to his background as a science student than to a poetic or autobiographical impulse. It’s not enough for him to note a hickey he left on the neck of the beautiful, meaningless girl with light brown streaks in her hair. He needs to outline the physiological process by which kiss becomes bite becomes oozing vessels becomes a bruise becomes signifier of underlying hostility, rendering the album’s darkest moment with the detached candor of a lab report, which is precisely what “Tiny Vessels” is. 

On a more sublime note, his longing for someone who lives across the Atlantic is so powerful it requires him to reach back 4 billion years in time to describe, and ultimately lament, the formation of the ocean that separates them. 

Not to mention the explanation of how vision works in “A Lack of Color,” or the heart-organ/ river-dam-fish situation in “Lightness,” or the fact that “Expo ’86” takes its name from a massive celebration of engineering, transit and urban planning.

Transatlanticism is popularly understood to be a collection of songs about distance and the longing to close it. Mostly because it obviously is one — but only in widescreen. Close up, these songs aren’t just about distance, they’re a dialogue with it, a diatribe against it, a dissection of it. They’re reflections. They’re reckonings. They’re confessions. They’re interrogations. They’re narratives. They’re soliloquies. And the yearning isn’t always to bridge the distance. Sometimes they yearn to broaden it. They assemble a complex and conflicting litany of hail-mary attempts to fill the space defined by another person’s absence, addressing it from every angle, not sparing the unflattering and fruitless ones, until, like all space, it becomes invisible again. 

The songs explore a catalog of tones — petulance, fatalism, fragility, lust, disdain, bravado, supplication — but the most powerful moment is the most plainspoken. On the very last song, Gibbard repeats a simple confession that makes all the prostrations that lead to it seem like they were attempts to elide a truth he’s understood perfectly well all along: “I should’ve given you a reason to stay.” This moment of accountability is fact, not fiction. It follows that the hope it offers doesn’t exactly make you jump for joy. 

The nature of youth is that once you’re old enough to perceive how fleeting it truly is, you’re already looking back over your shoulder at it, excruciatingly aware of the mistakes you made and the pain you caused while it was still yours to claim. It’s only fitting that Transatlanticism should end with a muted evocation of that moment, and the tacit promise of learning from those mistakes, recalibrating your life to be accountable to the people who matter. It’s always too late to change the past, but the future is too important to allow it to stay the way it’s been.

Which brings us back to where we began. 

The real test of time doesn’t measure the quality of a record. It evaluates the character and capacity of the listener. Because records can’t change over time. They can only reveal the things that have changed around them — or, in the case of truly great records, the things that haven’t.

End note from the writer, Sean Nelson:

Despite an emphasis on lyrics in these notes, ‘Transatlanticism’ obviously represented a monumental step up for the whole band: the reach and grasp of Gibbard’s songwriting, the foresight and follow-through of Chris Walla’s production, the structural secret weapon of Nick Harmer’s bass parts and the expansive, audacious bandness of the whole band. But the MVP award for the entire album, if not, indeed, the entire band, must be reserved for drummer Jason McGerr, making his Death Cab debut on the record. It goes without saying that no band can be all the way great without an all-the-way-great drummer, and it’s not a coincidence that this was their most muscular, most versatile and most popular work to date. I was in the opening band on the first leg of the Transatlanticism tour. My tour diary entry about witnessing McGerr play the title track for the first time reads:

“He plays the same insistent beat pattern for something like 32 measures/three-four minutes, never varying, only getting louder and louder, until the climax, which finds him pounding the kit with the full force of his entire body, like a gorilla beating a smaller animal to death with a bone. Unbelievable. I mean no disrespect to his predecessors, Michael Schorr and Nathan Good (or indeed, second album drum ringer Ben Gibbard), when I say that Jason is not only the best drummer Death Cab has ever had, but might just be the best drummer, full stop.”

I’ve attended several dozen Death Cab shows in the 20 years since and nothing I’ve seen or heard has changed my mind.

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Sean Nelson

Sean Nelson is a writer, musician and actor who has been a friend and fan of Death Cab for Cutie since 1998. He appears on several of their records, including Transatlanticism.

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