October 23, 2003

Death Cab for Cutie: Hop on the Death Cab

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Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard has never been bigger. Of course, this band is still on tiny little Barsuk Records, but since their early lo-fi pop albums a scant 5 years ago, their following has expanded faster than a bag of popcorn in Chernobyl. Add this to the popularity Gibbard has gained with his collaboration with Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello under the moniker The Postal Service, and all of a sudden, he’s an indie rock superstar. Because of this, the Death Cab crew faces the release of their most anticipated album yet.

An album about patience and distance, Transatlanticism sees Death Cab venture further into the land of hi-fi mainstream music production, as they drift away from the more unconventional song structures of old. The lyrics seem to be less creative than they were on past albums, but Gibbard makes them more direct and meaningful, allowing the listener to feel every emotion, which is ever so elegantly expressed. His breathy vocals evoke a sense of longing reflected in the verses. The music fits the lyrical theme of the album perfectly, with its spaced-out, melancholy chords.

The album starts out with “The New Year,” a dramatic, towering rock song about unsolved problems. In this song, Gibbard expresses his disdain of his girlfriend who skipped town and left him without a clue how to remedy his situation. Subsequently, “Lightness” and “Title and Registration” feature an introspectively strummed guitar that plays a prominent role in the remainder of the album, along with lyrics that truly define wearing your heart on your sleeve. And, “The Sound of Settling” is a possible single, complete with an upbeat, catchy chorus.

In “Expo ’86” Gibbard sings about waiting for awkward relationship cycles to smooth out, but obviously they never do: “Sometimes I think this cycle never ends/ We slide from top to bottom then we turn and climb again/ And it seems by the time that I have figured what it’s worth/ The squeaking of our skin against the steel has gotten worse.” To mirror this, the album ends with the same droning, humming sound that it starts with, so the album sounds like a continuous loop when played on repeat. It’s a clever symbolic touch. The title track, which is the centerpiece of Transatlanticism, uses repetition to full effect; Gibbard unleashes his sorrow by hammering the phrase “I need you so much closer” into the listener’s brain.

The highlight of this album is band member Chris Walla’s impeccable production. It’s easily one of the most beautiful sounding albums of the year. Drums are fuzzed down to a low roar, guitars are only distorted when necessary, high and low strings intertwine, and keys and knobs produce an aural mystique that is both haunting and dreamy, but not too overpowering. This is still rock music, after all, and guitars come first, no matter what. But it’s not surprising to hear some Postal Service influence leaking over to the Death Cab side.

This could be the breakout album Gibbard and Co. were striving for, the one that all the big magazines rave about. Longtime Death Cab fans will dive right into this, especially those who appreciate their last effort, The Photo Album. Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for their magnum opus, but this definitely shows that they’re evolving. I guess popularity isn’t always such a bad thing after all.

Archived article by John Penning