Arachnophonia: Death Cab For Cutie “Transatlanticism”

Editor’s note: Arachnophonia is a regular feature on our blog where members of the UR community can share their thoughts about items in the Parsons Music Library‘s collection. All links included in these posts will take you to either the library catalog record for the item in question or to additional relevant information from around the web.

Today’s installment of Arachnophonia is by Music Library student worker Cole (class of 2021) and features Transatlanticism the fourth studio album by indie rock band Death Cab For Cutie originally released in 2003. Thanks, Cole!

Death Cab For Cutie


Death Cab For Cutie - Transatlanticism

“So this is the New Year
And I don’t feel any different”

So begins Death Cab for Cutie’s 2003 album Transatlanticism, and so too begins another calendar year. I mentioned this record in my previous Arachnophonia post, so I found it fitting to further detail it for my first submission of 2018. Written entirely by front man Ben Gibbard and recorded at the same time as The Postal Service’s Give Up, Transatlanticism offers a darker and more personal rumination on love than the synth-pop optimism of Gibbard’s collaboration with Jimmy Tamborello. Whereas Give Up dwells on relationships past, it ultimately is a celebration of those experiences. Transatlanticism is principally about the distances from others–physical and otherwise – that prevent us from being happy. It condemns, rather than celebrates, past failures.

Gibbard’s obsession with destructive distance is evident from the first moments of the album, and indeed the record’s name itself. The aforementioned intro track “The New Year” finds him mocking the inane celebration of the New Year’s holiday. Eventually, the song drops its cynical façade and ends with an honest rumination about the first type of distance addressed in the album – geographic:

“I wish the world was flat like the old days
Then I could travel just by folding a map
No more airplanes, or speed trains, or freeways
There’d be no distance that can hold us back”

Gibbard has become disillusioned about the “magic” of the New Year. Rather than celebrating with his friends the progression of time, he chooses instead to lament about “the old days” when the world was flat, senselessly believing that this would somehow allow him to be closer to his estranged lover.

Further on, numerous songs wrestle with an entirely different form of distance – temporal. In “We Looked Like Giants,” the second to last track of the album, Gibbard reminisces over the novelty of first love.

“I’ve become what I always hated when I was with you then
We looked like giants in the back of my grey subcompact
Fumbling to make contact as the others slept inside”

He notes the irony of how much he’s changed in the days since his high school affair and views the entire experience with an acute awareness of their naïveté. Unlike most other songs from Transatlanticism, Gibbard doesn’t pine for anything here. “We Looked Like Giants” reminisces but doesn’t dwell. It examines an old flame for what it was, not what it might have been, and in doing so provides the closest thing to a sense of closure found on the album.

Contrarily, “Title and Registration” recounts a personal experience of Ben Gibbard, stumbling across pictures of an ex-lover he “tried to forget” while searching for a legal document in the glove compartment of his car. He reminisces about this love lost thus:

“There’s no blame
For how our love did slowly fade
And now that it’s gone
It’s like it wasn’t there at all
And here I rest
Where disappointment and regret collide
Lying awake at night”

Gibbard takes an intriguing stance in this verse, first asserting that there’s “no blame” for the end of the relationship, but still expresses “disappointment and regret.” He takes issue not with the ending of the affair, but with how both parties allowed their love to extinguish with whimper. It’s only now, since distance has developed from the ending of the relationship, that Gibbard is tormented by his failure.

The final form of distance addressed in Transatlanticism, and indeed the most crucial, is emotional. As suggested in “Title and Registration,” Gibbard’s deepest wounds are delivered not by betrayal, but the slow division that sedates love into apathy. In “Expo ’86,” he critiques the very pursuit of love itself:

“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
But if I move my place in line, I’ll lose
And I have waited, the anticipation’s got me glued
I am waiting for something to go wrong
I am waiting for familiar resolve”

Like Sisyphus eternally rolling his boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back once he’s reached the top, Ben Gibbard feels trapped in a never-ending cycle of relationships. He desperately wants more than anything to just finish. This fixation with repetition prevents him from truly engaging in any meaningful way. Instead, he’s just “waiting for something to go wrong.”

Death Cab For Cutie

This dissociation from romantic endeavors is what drives Gibbard in “Tiny Vessels.” Here, he confesses to his emotional detachment, painting himself in a selfish and potentially even misogynistic light:

“So one last touch, and then you’ll go
And we’ll pretend that it meant something so much more
But it was vile, and it was cheap
And you are beautiful
But you don’t mean a thing to me”

Heartbreak after heartbreak has driven Gibbard from seeking passionate love to purely physical stimulation – the very transformation he despises. While “Tiny Vessels” proves to be a moral recession, it exists to embolden the revelation of the next song, the title track “Transatlanticism.”

Just shy of eight minutes long, “Transatlanticism” stands as the focal point of the album. In many ways it proves to be antithetical to every other song on the record. Rather than a cynical dismissing of past relationships, the title track is a heartbreakingly honest plea for true love. While the song is literally about a man being separated from his lover by the birth of the Atlantic Ocean, in truth it details the death of a relationship at the hands of a widening emotional disconnect.

“Most people were overjoyed
They took to their boats
I thought it less like a lake
And more like a moat”

Gibbard makes use of all three forms of distance – physical, temporal, and emotional, – and in doing so, produces the most genuine and stunning track of the album. Unlike “Title and Registration,” in “Transatlanticism” the speaker hasn’t resigned to simply regret the death of his relationship, because a fragment of it still remains. Rather than accept the slow death, he fights tooth and nail to preserve the love that’s slipping through his fingers. The song crescendos with a simple refrain – “I need you so much closer” – repeated twelve times, and then finally climaxes with the outro:

“So come on, come on
So come on, come on
So come on, come on
So come on, come on”

In my personal opinion, this is Ben Gibbard at his absolute best. Sparse, honest, and absolutely agonizing.

Since its release, Transatlanticism has been near-universally accepted as Death Cab for Cutie’s greatest work, and a seminal album of indie rock. While the band’s fan base consistently ridicules them for their more recent, upbeat outputs (fans often ironically lament how they want Ben Gibbard to be miserable again), Gibbard himself remains realistic about the band’s necessity for evolution. In a 2015 interview with Medium, Gibbard offered this:

“I cannot be the 25-year-old who wrote Transatlanticism as much as the fan can’t be the 19-year-old college student going through a break-up again.”

So I implore you, while you have the opportunity to be that 19-or-20-or-however-old-college-student-going-through-a-break-up-or-whatever-else, listen to Transatlanticism and be it.

Death Cab For Cutie