Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie
Nobody could have ever predicted what Death Cab would become until after hearing Transatlanticism.
I really wish I could stop talking about the pandemic, but every time I think I'm done mentioning it, it comes up organically. So, I guess I'll just lean into it until I run out of stories.
I've seen Death Cab for Cutie live probably a dozen times over the years, but maybe the most memorable show was the one that didn't really happen at all at the 2020 Innings Festival in Tempe Arizona. A music festival in 2020? Yep. Innings Festival really squeaked it in just in the nick of time.
One of the last things I did before the world shut down was fly from Cleveland to Phoenix so that I could hit up the Innings Music Festival in Tempe Arizona at the end of February in 2020. On the one hand, I was already nervous and scared about the pandemic. A few days before flying out, I spent about $300 on food that wouldn't spoil and other supplies before I left on the trip. I had no idea how bad things would get, but I was already freaked out. Somehow buying embarrassing amounts of canned chicken, dry macaroni noodles, and jars of bland grocery store marinara made me feel prepared. I'm still not sure what I was preparing for with those purchases. Did I think the pandemic was actually going to score me an invite to the world's worst potluck? Now that I think of it, maybe there's a way to make a chicken-macaroni-marinara baked dish that would be good. If I ever attempt it - I won't - I'll be sure to report back. Anyway, times were weird. I was fearful.
I thought about not going to Arizona at all, but I was already pot committed for more than $1000 between airplanes, Airbnb, and concert tickets. There were six other fellow dads flying out to enjoy the festivities with me, so I made the choice to go ahead with the plan.
It was our second year hitting up this festival designed to correspond to the beginning of spring training in Arizona. It also aligned with the aging, somewhat crusty population of baseball fans and their - or should I say our - music tastes. It's the kind of festival for people who used to like cool music that other people didn't know. But the bands got successful and most people have heard of them now. I'm in my 40s and we're at an age where we not only can't read the smaller printed names on most festival posters, we wouldn't recognize most of them even if we could get our eyes to focus enough.
Seriously. Go check out the concert poster for Lollapalooza in Chicago this year with its eye test fonts getting smaller and smaller as you go down the list with lesser-known artists. Then check out the Innings Festival poster. That poster only has two font sizes. Big and bigger. They know their audience, I tell ya, and when I read the names of the bands that have played the two years, you'll get it.
In 2019, the headliners were Eddie Vedder, Incubus, Jimmy Eat World, Sheryl Crow, Blues Traveler, Cake, and Band of Horses. The fest also featured Liz Phair, Mat Kearney, and G. Love. It was awesome. Incubus puts on a show just as energetic as the one they did 20 years ago. Jimmy Eat World has never been more finely tuned as a group, and Eddie Vedder is Eddie Vedder. I'm old enough to remember when Pearl Jam broke, let alone Jimmy Eat World and Band of Horses, ya know? I still listen to new music, but for me, this is an awesome collection of concentrated classics.
The 2020 Innings Festival was very different, but it was in the same ballpark. Get it? Innings? Baseball? Ballpark? Whooo boy. Dad jokes abound in my world. Anyway, 2020 was even denser in terms of headline-level performers. Dave Matthews Band, Weezer, Portugal, The Man, Jason Isbell, OAR, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, and Pedro the Lion. And yes, the lead-in band for Weezer on Sunday night was Death Cab for Cutie who we're here to talk about today.
Except Death Cab didn't make it through four songs before lead singer Ben Gibbard dropped his guitar to the ground in frustration and walked off to end the show. He just couldn't sing. Having seen Gibbard and his band many times throughout the years, I could tell as he was singing the first song that something was wrong. The band opened with a newer song, “I Dreamt We Spoke Again,” which has an ironic title considering Ben couldn't get his voice to work.
By the time the set was over, I dreamt he could sing again. Wokka wokka! More dad jokes.
The boys scratched and clawed their way through Summer Years, The New Year, and The Ghosts of Beverly Drive before finally giving up the ghost. They apologized, but said they just couldn’t pull off the show.
The audience was disappointed, but nobody seemed angry. It gave us all a chance to start the 10-minute walk across the grounds of Tempe Beach Park to the other big stage to see Weezer. And little did we know at that time that we had probably just witnessed Ben Gibbard trying to sing with a nasty case of COVID-19. They're a band from Seattle, after all, and this was late February into the first days of March.
Later, the band tweeted,
To our fans at Innings Fest,
We made every effort to step on stage and play music for you tonight. Unfortunately, Ben came down with a severe illness during the week that required canceling his solo show on Friday. We were hoping he would be well enough to play a set tonight, and so we tried. But after the first few songs, his voice gave out completely and we had to leave the stage. We sincerely apologize for this, cancelling a show is always the last possible choice we want to make. But sometimes it is a choice that has to be made. Thank you for understanding and thank you for your support.
Death Cab for Cutie
We'll never know for sure, but by March 17th when the world was essentially shut down and Ben Gibbard started playing sets from his home studio live on YouTube, we had a little more clarity. Those first few days when he played Live From Home, Gibbard couldn't contain his coughs. More than two weeks since he'd been forced to walk off the stage with his bandmates in Tempe Arizona, Ben Gibbard still couldn't sing a quiet acoustic set without coughing. Of course, he was never able to get tested in those early days, and because he wasn't in any danger at that point, it didn't make any sense to force the issue, so we'll just go ahead and assume he had it.
He addressed it on Day 2 of his livestream about how it started as a dry cough on February 26th, followed by four days of rolling fevers over 100 degrees. (Skip to the 7-minute mark in the video below.)
And none of this is what I'm really here to talk about today, because today is all about Transatlanticism. But it's hard to talk about Transatlanticism without also discussing who Death Cab for Cutie are today after Transatlanticism took them to a new level. I just find it all so interesting because for a huge portion of Death Cab for Cutie's career, they weren't supposed to be this much in the spotlight. They weren't the band that was going to play big festivals like Innings. It wasn't at all self-evident that Death Cab would be a big band someday.
From the early years in the late 90s and into the early 2000s, Death Cab for Cutie were a somewhat slovenly indie rock band with huge dynamics and very slow tempos playing through muddy-sounding PA systems. Back in those early days in the early 2000s when I saw Death Cab playing for dozens of fans at The Middle East in Cambridge Mass or even a few years later playing for hundreds on the Death and Dismemberment tour with The Dismemberment Plan, we never could have known that Death Cab for Cutie would become this band.
That all changed with Transatlanticism. It was an album, as opposed to a collection of songs. It captivated people in a way that made them fans for life. It gave Death Cab for Cutie a much bigger audience and a record deal with a major label. I'm getting ahead of myself. So let's dive into Transatlanticism.
Death Cab Drummers
Transatlanticism is the fourth studio album by Death Cab for Cutie. It was the first with new drummer Jason McGerr, who replaced Michael Schorr. McGerr has now been with the band 18 years and counting, so it's easy to forget that Death Cab was once known for having trouble keeping their drummers. McGerr has solidified the Death Cab lineup, but we had no idea that would be the case. So let's talk about Death Cab drummers a bit.
I grew up as a mediocre drummer, but just because I never became phenomenal doesn't mean I don't understand it. I can hear drumming in a way that allows me to be a pretty good judge. It was one of the first things that drew me to Smashing Pumpkins. I have an ongoing conversation with a very good friend of mine about how Cloud Nothings and Deafheaven (Sup Andrew?) couldn't be the bands they are without their specific and phenomenal drummers. I spent way too much time in my teenage years talking about the differences between Primus drummers Herb and Brain. Back to Death Cab drummers.
Having listened to Michael Schorr's drumming on records and live, I have to say the guy has talent. Jason McGerr has loads of talent as well, but there's a noticeable difference between the two, stylistically. Jason McGerr might be able to blow you away with his skills, but you wouldn’t know it necessarily. His career with Death Cab is so intent on serving the song, that he doesn't seem to go out of his way to show you how talented he is. Schorr had more of a flair and it seemed to me that he played like he wanted the world to know how good he was.
When you listen to some of the more frenetic drumming on The Photo Album, while much of it works, it's hard to imagine that same guy finding the pocket as well as McGerr and the band did on Transatlanticism. The groove on Title and Registration is an exercise in forceful subtlety behind the kit. We will get into the song Transatlanticism itself later, but any drummer I've ever met in my entire life would have tried to add drum fills all over the place to accent the huge choral finish. And yet McGerr isn't necessarily hiding, but he lets the song play with his dutiful, bombastic
quarter eighth notes leading the way.
Coming to Grips With Bigger Audiences / The Postal Service
Transatlanticism came out in October of 2003. Ben Gibbard released Give Up an album he did with Jimmy Tamborello under the name The Postal Service in February of 2003. As the famous story goes, Gibbard and Tamborello exchanged musical ideas through the mail via CD-R. For those who don't know, a CD-R is a round metallic looking thing made of plastic that used to be used to hold music or data. It came after the audio cassette and some of us were dumb enough to think they'd last forever. There used to be entire stores dedicated to selling these things called CDs. Alright, I'm now being an asshole.
The culmination of that was this unbelievable album called Give Up. There are lots of great songs on that album but THE song "Such Great Heights" was a blockbuster. It ended up being ranked 27 on Rolling Stone's Best Songs of the Decade list. I only point that out to say it was very much on the radar in ways that Death Cab for Cutie had never been in their career to that point. It reached Number 21 in the US Hot 100 Singles Sales chart via Billboard. The single CD included the original version of Such Great Heights, a cover of We Will Become Silhouettes by The Shins, and a cover of Such Great Heights by Iron and Wine. In a lot of ways, the Iron and Wine version is the most common version of the song anymore. It took an electronic song and unplugged it in a way that Johnny Cash eventually did for Nine Inch Nails' Hurt. It's that great of a song that it can be translated in multiple ways.
Back in my world where my friends and I were obsessed with Death Cab for Cutie, I think the Postal Service made some of us nervous. Watching Ben Gibbard take off with a project that wasn't Death Cab made us nervous about the future of the band that we loved. And by some of us, I probably just mean me and maybe one other person I knew. Back in 2003 when all of this was happening and before we knew that Transatlanticism was on the way, these were some of the prevailing headspaces that the fans found themselves in.
The memories of Death Cab for Cutie at that moment were from seeing them play a great set at The Agora in Cleveland on March 21, 2002. The Photo Album had been out and Death Cab released The Stability EP, which included two very slow, beautiful, and depressing songs called 20th Century Towers and Stability, along with a cover of Bjork's All is Full of Love.
"20th Century Towers" is pure art-rock beauty. It's impossibly slow. The vocals sound bleak and purposefully thin. Stability is also impossibly slow. It's also over 12 minutes long. These are not sales moves that are going to make you millions of dollars or widen your fanbase. It gives you something extra to sell at your merch table between tour stops with your friends in the Dismemberment Plan while doing something called The Death and Dismemberment tour. I'm not being critical. I loved The Stability EP. I would have counted many of those as my favorite Death Cab songs at that point in their career. It was completely free and un-self-aware. When Death Cab get a chorus together to sing "I won't mind" at the end of Stability, it's a perfect indie rock moment.
But contrast it with what happened when Give Up came out and Ben Gibbard is now kind of a pop star. I was really happy for him and it was cool to see a songwriter I loved become validated even if it wasn't the songs I fell in love with from the very beginning. Still, I felt like I was poised to lose something I really loved. I was a sad sack lonely guy in my 20s as it was, so playing the part of the music snob who loved Death Cab before The Postal Service was part of my undesirable brand.
That show I was talking about? I went to that show by myself. I couldn’t swear to it, but I bet I bought two tickets with the hopes that I wouldn't be by myself. It was a Thursday in Cleveland in a rough neighborhood at The Agora on East 55th and Euclid. I am embarrassed to tell you how many times your boy bought two tickets in hopes of finding someone to go with, and then just ended up burning a ticket and going by myself. And the audience was full of fans like myself who swayed back and forth and were quiet during the precious moments. The show I went to is available on archive dot org and I actually went back and listened to the whole thing. I wasn't making it up.
Then The Postal Service record comes out. The Postal Service puts a touring band together and plays across the world including most of the United States and a handful of shows and festivals in Europe. Death Cab had played all over the world by that point too, but never with the energy and excitement around its songs.
Little did we know that Ben Gibbard, Chris Walla, Nick Harmer, and new drummer Jason McGerr were working on an album that would maybe take some of that excitement from The Postal Service and build a launchpad of their own.
Was it Just Me?
Do you ever have these albums in life that you think might just hit you at your perfect time? This is the way I felt when I finally listened to Death Cab for Cutie. Follow this timeline with me. Your lonely friend Craig was a little less lonely in August of 2003. I had reconnected with a girl in Chicago who had been my older sister's college roommate. I was doing work for a big corporation in the Chicago area for a lot of 2002, and I enjoyed hanging out with her, so I was inventing excuses to be in Chicago. As it turned out, the most plausible excuse for me to visit was to go see concerts. I would buy tickets, take days off of work and make that near six-hour drive across Ohio and Indiana. That's just what I did to arrive in Chicago on Friday, August 15th, 2003 to go to Shuba's Tavern to see a Ben Gibbard solo set.
Most of the set was from The Photo Album and before, but he played We Looked Like Giants and Title and Registration from the forthcoming album that night. I was falling in love with my future wife, essentially with Death Cab for Cutie as a major side character to our story.
The album came out on October 7 of 2003, and I was back in Chicago with my future wife at the Metro on October 10, 2003.
Of course, it's just a coincidence that the band I loved wrote an album with a song that might as well be the greatest long-distance relationship song of all time. It's an epic, ballad that repeats the phrase "I need you so much closer" 12 times before resolving "so come on!" over and over again.
The actual song, Transatlanticism features the voices of not only Ben Gibbard, but Sean Nelson of Harvey Danger, John Roderick who would later somehow go on to become "Bean Dad," and Phil Wandscher, formerly of Whiskeytown. As for John Roderick and the whole "Bean Dad" thing, look it up if you must, but you'd be better served looking up a video of John Roderick performing the phenomenal song "The Commander Thinks Aloud" solo on piano. Hell, you should listen to The Long Winters. It’s a phenomenal band that I also saw in Chicago on one of my many trips there during my courtship of my future wife. Scared Straight is so good.
Beyond just the song Transatlanticism, the album carried me across state lines from Cleveland to Chicago at least a half dozen more times before I finally convinced her that we needed to be together forever. We got married on October 28, 2006. This essy project is only partially about me. It's really about the music and I'm just a storyteller and side character. But when we're talking about Transatlanticism, I can't help but explain my personal experience with this album, especially knowing what we all know now.
Transatlanticism was the launching point for Death Cab for Cutie. It was work beyond anything they'd ever produced before. It was mature in terms of structure and style beyond anything they'd proven capable of before. It connected with me beyond anything the band had ever produced before, and I was far from alone in those feelings.
According to Wikipedia, the initial label projections were for the album to sell between six and eight-thousand copies. The album debuted with over 15,000 copies sold, probably partially due to the Postal Service bump. But that was just the beginning. By the end of 2004, it had sold 225,000 copies. It eventually went gold by 2008. Not bad for an album that was thought to initially do something less than 10,000 copies.
On July 25, 2004, the song Transatlanticism appeared in one of my favorite TV shows of all time, HBO’s Six Feet Under. Clair is painting the words "Terror Starts at Home" on the wall as the kids sit around stoned. Mena Suvari and Clair start singing "I need you so much closer" as they look longingly around the room at each other. It's kind of an embarrassing scene if I'm being honest. In the moment though, it was really awesome to see one of your favorite bands get that kind of recognition and validation.
I never watched The O.C. but lots of people did. Death Cab for Cutie was making headway in their career already, but being featured on a network TV show back when The O.C. was big could make a career.
And that’s how the bidding war started for Death Cab for Cutie. They would eventually sign a big deal with Atlantic Records, and it was a triumphant moment for the band and for its fans.
The Final Word on Transatlanticism
Ultimately, no matter what Ben Gibbard did with the Postal Service, it wouldn’t have mattered to Death Cab for Cutie’s career if the band hadn’t delivered the songs that make up Transatlanticism. From the first moments of the record, they bang you over the head with the percussive riffs that begin The New Year. It’s one of the most anthemic bangers the band ever did. It was an eye-opening song that this band was going to be more approachable and less precious while remaining true to their indie-rock roots.
Title and Registration introduces a poppier vibe, which was accented in their live show. Ben Gibbard was no longer stomping slowly as he plucked away at his guitar slowly. He was now bouncing while hitting an electronic drum pad while singing an uptempo, but melancholic song. Expo ‘86 hits some of the biggest vocal highs on the record.
The Sound of Settling is the first bona fide pop song from Death Cab for Cutie. It’s two minutes and 12 seconds of onomatopoeia “bob pah!” banging. It was the second single from the record and ended up being the one that was featured in the O.C. TV show. It also had a really good music video at the tail end of when those things really mattered.
The album is made on the trilogy of songs that come after The Sound of Settling. Tiny Vessels sounds like a vintage Death Cab. It’s a bit slower. The lyrics are exactly what you expect from Ben Gibbard, but then the song kicks into high gear. It’s not a chorus per se, but the song hits a peak before descending into a contemplative “You are beautiful but you didn’t mean a thing to me” before hitting a final drum that starts the odd click track leading into the nearly-eight minute Transatlanticism.
Transatlanticism is showing the same level of patience the band showed in The Stability EP with 20th Century Towers. It’s basically just Ben Gibbard and a piano playing slowly and deliberately and letting every word of the song breathe before the band comes in and joins the mix a little bit at a time. I’ve said this before on these pages about other songs, but Transatlanticism is everything I look for in a song. It’s got emotion, urgency, an unbelievable build, a peak that’s worth the ride, before hitting a resolution. It’s one of my favorite songs of all time, and that’s saying a lot for me.
After hitting the emotional high of Transatlanticism, it only made sense to follow with something so slow and chill as Passenger Seat.
I won’t dwell on it, but Death of an Interior Decorator doesn’t belong on this album. It’s a song written with a Woody Allen film as inspiration. Let’s just put it this way. The band has only played this song 34 times live according to Setlist dot FM.
We Looked Like Giants is a phenomenal song, which played especially well live. The album finishes off with an Elliott Smith-sounding song called A Lack of Color. It’s really pretty, and sad, and ends with the same atmospheric sounds that the album begins with before A New Year.
And thus ends one of the greatest albums from one of my very favorite bands. I was with them from the beginning. I took the ride with them as they became one of the most popular American rock bands of their era. They were the soundtrack of my life as a musician in a band and also my excuse to visit the girl who would eventually be my wife. I would have found other excuses, of course, but in my world Death Cab for Cutie was as good as any and it couldn’t have been a more perfect album for it all.
At some point, it might make sense to talk about Plans too. The first major-label album from Death Cab didn’t supplant Transatlanticism as my favorite, but I often say it’s probably their best. It also features the biggest blockbuster song of the band’s career, I Will Follow You Into the Dark. I could do an entire essay on that one because it’s odd to me as a long-time fan of the band. The band has to play it live every time they play because it’s the song that even casual Death Cab fans know, but when Ben Gibbard opened up his live stream show to the hardcore Death Cab fans to pick his setlist for a show, he was noticeably shocked that it wasn’t the most requested song. It just goes to show how weird music and fandom are. Casual fans gravitate toward one thing and hard-core fans gravitate toward another.
For as much as our musical experiences converge, this one is an outlier on my timeline. I mostly missed the entire Death Cab experience. I never listened to the Postal Service album back in the day, and I know I never listened to this album when it came out either. I had absolutely no opinion of Death Cab. They were a band that existed. I was aware they existed, and that was it.
And it wasn't Plans that got me into them, either. Them moving to a major label did nothing to get them more on my radar. No, for me, it was Narrow Stairs. I don't remember why for sure, but I suspect it because it was the late 2000s when I started listening to a lot of the Sound Opinions and All Songs Considered podcasts. I'm not sure which podcast suggested it to me, but I know one of them played I Will Possess Your Heart and BAM....that's what did it for me. I fell in love with that song, I listened to Narrow Stairs a lot, and I eventually made my way to Plans and then...finally...Transatlanticism.
This is such a powerhouse of an album. I especially appreciate your point on the drummer serving these songs. That is so spot on. As always, great write up! This one was probably one of my favorites yet.
I'm so glad I found this blog and I'm going through all the entries. Death Cab, Tool, Incubus, Hop Along, Typhoon, Thursday, Smashing Pumpkins, Manchester Orchestra, etc. are all on my list of favorite bands and I love reading the personal takes on where you were when this music hit you. I'm in the same generation and it's a great read.