You Can’t Paint These Songs with Numbers:
Transatlanticism at Ten Years’ Distance
Anniversary editions can be easily cast as cash grab made by labels mining old products for new revenue streams. They tend to target audience members who already own the original release. Why would anyone else care? This practice, in audio formats, usually involves extra tracks as an enticement. Ethics aside, these additions become problematic when the release in question is a “concept” album, an idea which itself may seem archaic in the era of the individual digital download. Death Cab for Cutie’s fourth album, Transatlanticism, is a looser sequence than something like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, but it still falls squarely in the broader aesthetic category, even down to sharing The Wall’s use of meaningful sound cues in addition to the formal songs. Barsuk, with this Anniversary edition, avoids the pitfalls of the form, and gives an appreciative audience a terrific new window on a landmark piece of work.
Perhaps Transatlanticism is closer to the progenitor of concept albums: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The songs on Transatlanticism don’t form a story, but they are linked in ways that mark the band’s maturing as artists, as Sgt. Pepper had for the Beatles. John Lennon famously asserted that Sgt. Pepper was a concept strictly because they claimed it was, that only the first two songs and then the reprise of the title track constituted a formal story.
Despite Lennon’s assertions, the album also has its own hermetic musical statement. You can scarcely hear one of its tracks without thinking of the one preceding and the one following. While that sequence is internalized for many listeners, each song still maintains its own identity. The potential stylistic relationship between these two albums shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone interested in a Death Cab for Cutie anniversary edition. Even their most casual fans are likely to know the band’s name references an absurdist performance in the Beatles’ film, Magical Mystery Tour.
Though not as dramatic a career change as Sgt. Pepper, Transatlanticism nonetheless found Death Cab for Cutie at a major point of transition. It was their first with Jason McGerr, whose addition would solidify the definitive band line-up, and it was also their last full-length recording on the independent label, Barsuk. The band’s success was marked by the use of cuts in a number of successful television shows, the group even regularly being name-checked in one popular series. The album’s release and subsequent tour were also mapped in the film Drive Well, Sleep Carefully. This documentary interspersed performance footage, short road-life clips and group interviews encompassing a variety of topics, including their recent ascent and the artistic decisions they’d made during Transatlanticism’s development. The film also offered a couple glimpses of early demos: “The Sound of Settling” and “Lightness,” notably different from their final release forms.
This album also documented the last step in the band’s steady move from the low-fi presentation of their earlier releases to crisper, sharper production while still acknowledging earlier choices. Gone were the sophomoric puns from Something About Airplanes, like “The Face That Launched a Thousand Shits,” with its tasteless title and overt lyrical references to being in a band, the “vocal master” and the “new Gibson amp.” The new songs explored the nuances of relationships with greater subtlety. Though the band continued to employ sound effects, Transatlanticism’s incorporations have a greater sense of purpose for the larger achievement, maybe closer to David Bowie’s use on Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) while the earlier samples on “Amputations” seemed closer to the jokey juxtapositions found on Bongwater’s The Power of Pussy or maybe even Double Bummer.
Transatlanticism is a complete package, like a poetry collection. “I need you so much closer,” a refrain from the title track, even acknowledges the group’s artistic focal point: the challenges of navigating distance relationships. Its images, sounds and ideas appear, disappear, resurface in refraction and vanish again in echoing progressions. The songs offer individual moments, but even these are often more impressionism than straight up narrative. As a listener, you leave aware that you know each song, but in some less articulate way, you know the moments that make up parts of songs informing one another’s ideas. It’s like experiencing multiple films projected simultaneously on the same screen.
The album initially suggests a linear narrative, opening with an explicit start point in “The New Year,” the optimism of this holiday quickly revealed as fleeting and delusional. The singer declines to make resolutions and invites the party companions to put on their best suits or dresses to pretend they’re wealthy. The song drifts into a lament, concluding with a desire to go back in time, when distance was not a problem.
The characters inhabiting “Lightness,” the next song, might be at the same party, the singer sneaking glances at flesh revealed by a tear in someone’s favorite dress. Here, time quickly slips into a less neat order. The song transitions into glimpses even deeper than the skin flashed in that stolen intimacy. Microscopically intimate moments are scattered throughout the album. Hearts and arteries appear first here. They resurface a few songs later, damaged by sexual passion, as the broken “Tiny Vessels,” a dark and absurd ode to the hickey as a marker of love. “A Lack of Color,” the final track, traces the ways the human eye receives images inverted and the brain flips them to the appropriate orientation without our awareness. These marriages of soul and body form apt metaphors for things we see and don’t comprehend, and then manage the best we can, all the ways we wrestle distance.
The glove compartment disparaged in “Title and Registration” from the first half of the album could easily be inches away from “The Passenger Seat” inside the “gray subcompact” where two young people explore early intimacy in “We Looked Like Giants” near the album’s end. The order of the revelation suggests the random nature of our memories, and the ways we can be hijacked by them. Often, the same song can move from humor to heartbreak so subtly and with such craft, you’re only aware of the shift because your mood has changed.
“Title and Registration” turns sharply from an Andy Rooney-ish goof on inappropriately named objects to a moment in which painful memories are thrust back into our lives by randomly discovered objects from our pasts. Everyone does know glove compartments rarely hold anything to keep our fingers warm, that they often become accidental repositories of our mementos. The song’s title and lyrics not only imply ownership, but they also suggest the driver is being pulled over by the police (Why else would he be searching for legal documents in the middle of a rainstorm?), but there’s no explicit mention of law enforcement officers. The memories of the failed relationship that the driver’s kept at bay have recaptured him by the song’s end.
Ben Gibbard, primary singer, guitarist, stage front man, tends to be cast as the creative powerhouse of this band, as often happens with people in such positions. He has written all the lyrics for this album, and there is no arguing his command of the language, his way with unexpected and fresh observations over potentially mundane subjects, his willingness to go to more nuanced expressions of a young person’s experiences with sensitivity and respect.
Being a wordsmith has its own particular baggage that is perhaps a bit different from other avenues of artistic expression. Even a visual artist has the choice to go beyond representation, but most writers, to some degree, must rely on narrative. Some bands have forgone words in much of their work. Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Sigur Ros, even early REM, cared more for the progression of sounds than a clear narrative trajectory. But Death Cab for Cutie have consistently gone the route of the short narrative, often manifested as first person stories of misfiring relationships. They’ve even embraced the reputation despite some criticism for their perceived mopey disposition.
In Drive Well, Sleep Carefully, there is a fair amount of discussion and concern about including “Tiny Vessels,” because it could be interpreted as the voice of “the biggest asshole of all time.” Gibbard observes that he feels the need to be free to explore whatever subjects he chooses to, without needing to own the experience, a freedom he suggests novelists have. The case seems a little overstated, given that the man in the song is having sex with a beautiful woman he doesn’t love, just because he had the opportunity.
It might be Gibbard, but it might not, though such an encounter seems not quite as epically “vicious” as the band’s concern suggests. It’s understandable that he might not wish to be painted with this persona. However, he seems not at all concerned about having narratively transposed himself, like a reversal of The Purple Rose of Cairo’s plot, into Woody Allen’s Interiors for “The Death of an Interior Decorator,” as opposed to his concern over adopting the voice singing “Tiny Vessels.” If a listener were unfamiliar with the Allen film, there is nothing present in the album’s materials to indicate the song’s status as interpolation. Despite this unequal concern about the effects of personae, both are distinct narrative choices of a mature writer, and Gibbard uses his tools to great effect throughout.
All of these qualities, to say nothing of the simultaneously intimate and epic title track, are reason enough Transatlanticism is considered Death Cab for Cutie’s break-out release, reason enough to revisit this release on the occasion of its tenth anniversary. Barsuk and the band have justified the addition of a new product into the journey by including something other than bonus tracks on the re-release.
There’s no scarcity, as the band regularly releases EPs of material not on full length albums. Instead of tipping the work’s aesthetic even slightly off its carefully shaped foundation, though, they’ve included a set of demos for the entire album, in the appropriate running order. All but one of these demos are performed solely by Ben Gibbard. Even as solo home demos, they are quite clean and enjoyable, fascinating listenable glimpses at these songs in formative stages.
Some songs are almost untouched beyond increasing production sharpness and nuance, notably, “The Passenger Seat” and “Death of an Interior Decorator.” The demo arrangement for “We Looked like Giants,” heavier in oddly syncopated electronic percussion, might sound like a candidate for The Postal Service’s Give Up. Nonetheless, the song’s earlier, altered lyric included nearby sleeping parents during the awkward young sexual liaison, thus marking the song closer to the furtive, physical longing explored in “Lightness” and “Tiny Vessels.”
Other songs have been dramatically overhauled and seem almost like different songs altogether. Perhaps the track this is most true for is “The Sound of Settling.” While the definitive version is a high octane rush, a barroom fist-fight with the idea of aging, the demo is more like a funeral dirge, a last march into resignation. Both are equally satisfying incarnations, but with entirely different emotional registers. “Tiny Vessels” in demo is surprisingly a much closer relative to “I Will Follow You into the Dark” than I might have ever imagined, that sort of quietly pathological cousin you’re drawn to at family reunions, hoping you don’t regret listening to his compelling story, afraid of where it might go at any turn.
A couple of tracks are missing essential elements that open the door for different levels of resolution. “Expo ‘86” here lacks the final progression and lyric that suggest a conclusion: “but what’s strange is they’re all basically the same, so I don’t ask for names anymore.” The addition of this passage to the final version is no small change, as it identifies a distinct causal change in behavior. The title track demo has a long stretching “flanging” effect as its base with eventual broad synthesized chord progressions that make it sound more dreamy, almost hallucinatory, juxtaposed with a retro basic drum machine keeping time. “Lightness” is perhaps the strangest incarnation, the track most clearly an experiment. The drum track–percussive voice samples–is like a cross between beat-boxing and Jason’s “theme” sounds from the Friday the 13th films–too strange to be convincing as a legitimate final choice, but a fascinating exploration just the same.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of listening to the complete set of demos is the full appreciation the listener is afforded in hearing the final produced version after. In some ways, the demos serve as palate cleanser and the album’s nuances stand out afresh in striking relief. What this demo most confirms is two things: this work is fully that of a band working together; and Chris Walla’s role as producer and “sometimes arranger” is as much a key to this release’s cohesive feel as the songs themselves.
Those assertions might be hard to believe, considering Gibbard’s success in various side projects, including The Postal Service, his later solo work, and One Fast Move or I’m Gone, a Kerouac inspired collaboration with Son Volt’s Jay Farrar. Despite his dominance as songwriter and sole credited lyricist here, seven of the eleven songs share composition credits with other band members. The lone full band demo, “A Lack of Color,” is oddly not one that allows the band distinct identities. Consequently, their absence in the demos allows us to hear the breadth of their contributions to the formal release.
As an example, the two songs credited to all four members share qualities. “We Looked like Giants,” near the album’s end, begins with Nick Harmer’s tentative yet vaguely ominous bass runs, a signature back melody, complemented by parallel lines from Chris Walla’s keyboards and Jason McGerr’s toms. The drummer then abruptly jumps into explosive, cymbal-saturated percussion, opening the song up. This dramatic choice reprises some of McGerr’s album opening strategies from “The New Year.”
Walla, in producer mode, really pulls this collection together as a cohesive work. He not only allows each member to shine in a rich balance of separation and synthesis, but he also introduces sonic signposts, often bleeding one song’s tones and themes into another, or unexpectedly breaking them, only to resume the connections again later. Rather than producing a series of individual songs, Walla orients the listener to Gibbard’s lyrics and repeated motifs, allowing each its time in the light by strategic placement and dominance.
The album begins and ends with the same electronic drone, inviting a closed-loop interpretation. The last song, “A Lack of Color,” involves a protagonist attempting reconciliation, trying to explain the physiology of vision and light refraction, that white is not a lack of color, but quite the reverse, that it is all colors joined together. The notion is preposterous but fact, which strangely prompts the speaker to segue into examining the empty titillation available from pornography, now that he’s alone, and an admission that he knows he’s too late in his attempt to reestablish contact. The drone begins before the song, at the conclusion of “We Looked like Giants,” mixed with the sound of wind, evoking those mountain passes. As the wind texture fades, the drone stays throughout the final song and leads the listener back to the beginning with “The New Year” and another admission, that the speaker doesn’t feel any different, though the culture insists that the beginnings of new years are fresh starts.
Walla layers in similar connective tissue among other songs. A kind of industrial heartbeat at mid-album, reminiscent of an oil rig’s pumping rhythm, creates the unlikely link between the cynicism of “Tiny Vessels”’s persona with the plaintive singer from the title track. This second singer places himself at the dawning of the Atlantic, futilely watching landmass disappear beneath water, creating islands out of what had been contiguous land. These songs are so wedded together by this effect, they tend even to be performed in tandem during concerts. It is hard to imagine hearing “Tiny Vessels” without the rhythmic sound effect opening into the piano chords of “Transatlanticism,” and the reintroduction of a less opportunistic persona. This speaker is the same kind of person who, in “The New Year,” yearns to rediscover his innocence, to not worry of the distances oceans create, “to travel just by folding the map.” The mourning dove that serves as a melancholic time keeper in the second song, “Lightness,” finds faint companions in the coastal birds heard fleetingly at the end of “We Looked like Giants,” the penultimate song. The paths continue to overlap, like a Moebius Strip.
Death Cab for Cutie has consistently taken great care with their packaging, including die-cut covers, vellum insets, and thematically cohesive art, and Transatlanticism is no exception. The striking image on the front cover, a soft-focus painting of a blackbird ensnared in some kind of blood-red string is simultaneously iconic and mysterious. The interior booklet reveals an abundance of representational painting, collage and assemblage, visually echoing the album’s themes with repeated imagery of red ropy tangles (reminiscent of anatomical textbook illustrations of arteries), blown electrical fuses, a humming bird, rendered in “outsider art” fashion, a spectral human figure ambiguously situated in roiling water, narrowly cropped photos of train cars, and other repeated elements, some at the abstract end of the spectrum and others falling closer to graphic design.
A figurative human hand, reminiscent of Adam’s reaching out to God on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, is also tangled in red tendrils. Depending on how you hold the booklet, it either opens an expanse of several minimalist panel-spreads with superimposed lyrics, or is in sharp juxtaposition against the hummingbird, its needle-like bill replacing the hand of God. One has to wonder, hearing the demos, if the revised line in “The New Year” introducing speed trains came as a result of the art, or if the artist, Adde Russell, was inspired by the late addition of this line to the song. The review copy did not come with the digital version of the 12 page booklet mentioned in the anniversary edition’s release materials, but I would imagine the booklet reproduces these emblematic if sometimes liminal images.
One unexpected joy that speaks to the care of this release is the freshly designed cover art for the demos, which is a perfect visual reflection of its contents. The iconic cover image of the black bird’s entanglement has been recast as an incomplete crude paint-by-numbers canvas. It’s a funhouse refraction of the demos’ nature: they are a representation of the album but they are not quite the real thing. The analogy breaks down a little in that the demos are the original versions and a paint-by-numbers is a re-creation tool for the hobbyist artist, but they both capture the opportunity and potential, if not the full pleasure of a polished work of art. The bird’s feathers in the original are painted in soft focus, and in the hopeful hands of the paint-by-number enthusiast, the original lines are mostly rendered accurately there, but more harshly defined, the nuance lacking.
If there is one thing I’m disappointed with in this release, it’s the formatting decision, and my disappointment may say something about my place outside of the expected demographic. Barsuk has chosen to make this edition available in 180-gram vinyl, and as a digital download. I’m old enough to have experienced vinyl the first time around and despite missing large format album art, I have no desire to revisit the cellophane hiss of deteriorating wax, despite others’ claims of its inherent “warmth.” I’m also probably a little too old to trust the ethereal nature of purchasing a download. The format I’ve come to embrace in adulthood, despite its art and liner note limitations, is the CD. The shelves of local record stores indicate this format is vanishing almost as rapidly as the wide-release vinyl I’d grown up with. Maybe that production decision is the perfect expression, a structuralist medium for this work, a document entrenched in the evanescent nature of everything we want to believe permanent, everything about which we’re nostalgic, and everything we want to leave behind for something new.
A release of this sort probably is startling to those who were young, in high school or college, when they first heard the album. Ten years out, they may be getting their first glimpse at the relentlessness of time, to know the lines “old age is just around the bend” from “The Sound of Settling” more intimately than they’d realized. As I’m writing this, it’s the end of December, 2013. In a couple days, I’ll hear explosions off in the distance. I might like to believe I don’t feel any different, but ten years out, we can’t help but be different people. One constant in all this change, though, is the fineness of this album and its deserved place in the anniversary edition collection.
Eric Gansworth (Onondaga) was born and raised at the Tuscarora Nation. His tenth book, If I Ever Get Out of Here, a Young Adult novel, was published by Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic in 2013. He is Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY. His books include Extra Indians (American Book Award, NAIBA Trade Book of the Year), and Mending Skins (PEN Oakland Award). His collection of poems and paintings, A Half-Life of Cardio-Pulmonary Function, was Number 3 on the National Book Critics Circle’s “Good Reads” List in 2008. His written work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Boston Review, Shenandoah, Poetry International, Third Coast, Provincetown Arts, among other periodicals and has been widely anthologized.