The Genius Of… Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie
Thematically centered around the pain of maintaining a relationship at long distance. Death Cab’s cinematic fourth album still stands as the high watermark of their songwriting expertise, sewn together with warm acoustics, haunting piano and washes of reverb-drenched guitar chords.
Image: Wendy Redferns / Redferns
During the opening half-decade of the 21st century, a collision of off-kilter indie rock married with irresistible pop hooks had invaded America’s psyche. Ever since The Strokes’ Is This It re-ignited indie’s furnace as a potentially commercially viable genre in 2001, a growing number of bands who’d previously been operating at the margins of acceptability suddenly found themselves hot-footing it up album charts and festival billings.
Though the no-frills, DIY ethos of The Strokes and The White Stripes had sparked this new era, the flung-open gates had also allowed in a motley crew of dishevelled, slightly bohemian, folksy outsiders. Suddenly thrust into the limelight by hordes of guitar band-hungry disc-buyers, these former outcasts re-worked their formerly lo-fi sound to court a wider listenership, and songs by the likes of Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse and Interpol were inescapable by the mid-2000s.
It’s in this context that Death Cab For Cutie’s trajectory from rickety indie solo project, to The O.C.-soundtracking indie-pop heavyweights is best understood. Originating back in the small town of Bellingham, Washington, principal songwriter Ben Gibbard grew tired of his previous role (as guitarist for local band Pinwheel) and decided to forge a new vehicle for his own songwriting. “When I was younger, music took every moment of my life.” The music-obsessed Gibbard recounted to NPR’s World Cafe, “I was thinking about it, I was listening to it, when I was writing something, I would walk away from it and still be thinking about it. It was very difficult to remove myself and get some distance and some perspective.”
Gibbard’s new creative mothership was dubbed ‘Death Cab for Cutie’ – a nod to the Elvis pastiche that a terrifying Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band performed at the end of The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour – Gibbard soon expanded his project into a full band, enlisting fellow Western Washington University students Chris Walla, Nick Harmer and Nathan Good on guitar, bass and drums respectively.
The sound of settling
Released in 1998, Death Cab’s debut Something About Airplanes was put out by independent Seattle label Barsuk Records. Instead of recording in a studio, the band’s material was thinly tracked and produced by Chris Walla at home with a vintage eight-track Tascam 80-8 reel-to-reel. It was a shaky debut, but it bore evidence of the band’s latent talents, particularly Gibbard’s aptitude for striking lyricism coalescing with Walla’s considered application of sweet guitar hooks. Follow-up We Have The Facts and We’re Voting Yes continued to solidify the band’s sound, and was soon considered by many in-the-know to be the troupe’s first bona-fide classic. Albeit, one that very few people heard at the time.
By 2001, Death Cab had undergone several key changes, particularly the addition of Jason McGerr on percussion after the departure of Nathan Good (and his replacement Michael Schorr), following third record The Photo Album. By this point, the group had settled into an effective musical niche, with emotive guitar, piano and lyricism at its centre, with only occasional forays into the type of distorted heavy rock that many of their indie rock peers leaned on. The Photo Album certainly sounded more refined than previous work, with Walla’s aptitude for production strengthened following the founding of his Seattle-based ‘Hall of Justice’ recording studios. Though singles A Movie Script Ending and We Laugh Indoors hadn’t really made a dent on the charts – or the public consciousness – the album’s sound and moderate success dictated the path ahead. They were on a path to the record that would provide Death Cab with the leg up they were now clearly ready for.
Unlike the sessions for The Photo Album, which had been tightly scheduled and stressful, the four decided that the next record should be allowed to grow organically over a leisurely six-month period. “[Making The Photo Album] was arguably the most difficult period in this band’s history.” Gibbard told Spin, “We almost broke up a couple of times. We had to really recommit to the idea of what this was and what we wanted to accomplish.”
Encamping in Walla’s Hall of Justice recording studios, Gibbard’s ideas were collectively rooted in a core thematic narrative, that of maintaining a relationship across a vast distance. This idea was partially inspired by Gibbard’s own experiences of trying to keep in touch with his then-girlfriend while touring the band’s previous record. “It’s like, well you grow with people when you share similar experiences, so when we spend all of our time out here [on tour], it’s hard to relate to people back home that don’t relate to what you do.” Ben explained to IGN. “It’s hard, It’s really hard. It helps to have a significant other that realises that when we go on tour, it’s not like Motley Crue!”
After recently completing the electronically-tinged record Give Up in the guise of The Postal Service, alongside producer and DJ, Dntel, Gibbard fully subsumed himself into songwriting as his sole occupation, and committed to completing a song-per-day. The fruits of his hard work yielded upwards of 30 home demos which were enthusiastically brought into the studio. The new material was among his most personal and direct to date, with (what became) the title track in particular radiating with a musical and emotional eloquence that far exceeded any previous Death Cab song. Walla was impressed, “[Ben’s songwriting] chops were getting better and he was self-editing less. It wound up resulting in some of the most genuine and straightforward writing he’s ever done, really open and unguarded in a way that was kind of new.” Chris recalled to Alt Press.
Both Chris and Ben had been guitarists in the band since its inception, and had both been deeply focused on arranging their parts together, with an emphasis on contrasting yet complementary tones. Walla’s pursuit of perfect tone above all else led him to be fastidious about every element of his guitar sound – from strings, to pickups, to which guitar was used, to the amp and the cab. This was before even thinking about additional effects. This tonal fixation led to some of the album’s most sublime moments from a guitar perspective, from the crystalline tenderness of Tiny Vessels, the dramatic shimmer of the chord impacts on the title track, to the knotty zig-zag of Death of an Interior Decorator’s interloping riff.
Walla had amassed a growing collection of guitars in his capacity as both producer and enthusiast, though three key instruments for Transatlanticism were his Gibson Tobacco Burst ES-335, complete with Seymour Duncan 1959 pickups (in both positions), a blonde Fender Telecaster and a Rickenbacker 6-string 660. The latter two provided the right amount of retro-atmosphere which weaved its way through Gibbard’s songs. Walla used his 1964 Fender Tremolux amplifier, while his pedalboard sported a pair of Maxon delays (AD-999 and AD-80) and Z-Vex boost pedal. For the crunch of The New Year and the pop-punk vigor of The Sound of Settling, distortion via a Fulltone Full Drive overdrive pedal was harnessed, alongside his amp’s own gain.
When Gibbard wasn’t tinkling the ivories, he relied largely on a sunburst Fender Strat, a thinline Fender Telecaster (with F-hole) and a pair of Gibson J-45s for acoustic textures (such as the arpeggiated intro of Title and Registration, and the gentle roll of Expo ’86) as well as some choice steals from Walla’s diverse arsenal. In later life, he’d become a Fender Mustang aficionado, with a signature range released by Fender earlier this year.
The Atlantic was born today
With the album’s eleven tracks decided, work began in earnest to give the sound of the album more polish than ever before. While keystones of the record would tend to fall into the quieter, more introspective category, the uplift of the spritely The Sound of Settling, the palm muted chug of We Looked Like Giants and seductive warmth of welcoming number The New Year served to remind listeners of Death Cab’s rock muscle.
Bursting to life with a swelling D♯ (overdubbed in various positions) lurching triumphantly to an uneasy Csus2, The New Year ‘s impactful distorted chords introduce the listener to Transatlanticism’s troubled thematic universe. As Gibbard delivers a satisfyingly anguished lyric concerning ‘problems without easy solutions’, Waller introduces a developing snake pit of worming melodic riffs, bubbling under the scorched surface of the arrangement. “That’s a song about a person who came to me one day and said she wanted to be written about.” Gibbard told Storytellers, “So it’s not really my story as much as it is hers. The song started out as a folk song, but it had to be ramped up a bit.”
The confessional Lightness segues seamlessly from the opening track, and foregrounds an ominous, synth-bass sound. Though Gibbard’s bright vocal melody swims over this shadowy arrangement, it’s not until Waller’s delicate arpeggio that we get some musical illumination, as it gently lights the way, spanning Em, F and C chords.
Though several moods and song-types are explored through the course of the record, the same restrained, and considered approach to guitar is evidenced throughout. With a very straightforward basic chord structure for the verse (A, C♯m, D, F♯M), the album’s majestic title track leaves Gibbard’s piano-and-vocal based arrangement alone for a long while, save for the sampled hum of an airplane engine. This allows the lyric and the song’s emotive pulse to directly affect the listener. As Gibbard dwells on distance, love and regret. Chris’s guitar enters the fray with a resolute D major chord impact, sliding down the G string to add a simple but effective two-note part that lifts the mood of the piece from the resigned reflectivity of the verse, to one of determination.
Elsewhere, the haunting piano-led Passenger Seat the urgent, layered We Looked Like Giants and – album highlight – the scintillating glimmer of Tiny Vessels mark pivotal moments on an album that was now shaping up to be not just the band’s most vital LP to date, but a pretty astonishing feast for the ears full stop.
We looked like giants
In the run-up to the release of Transatlanticism, the band allowed teen drama The O.C to use the album’s closing track A Lack of Color in its first season. The show even made a central character, Seth, a fan of the band (“Don’t diss Death Cab!”). Following this, the band itself performed (as themselves) in the show during the second season, delivering knockout versions of the infectious Title and Registration and The Sound of Settling.
This exposure to an audience who would otherwise not give the formerly chart-avoiding indie-quartet a second thought, heightened interest in their upcoming album. “The money from a license on a major network was huge for us.” Gibbard admitted to Vulture. “They would help us pay our rent – and it was a big deal. So we tuned in to watch the show, expecting the song to be just playing in the background while somebody was doing something. Then to have this weird fourth wall broken, where you have these fictional characters using a band that exists currently as a point to bounce dialogue off of, was just a really surreal moment.”
Resultantly, when the record saw release on 7 October 2003, sales exceeded expectations. Luckily, Transatlanticism was well worth this wider attention. “Transatlanticism is a breakup album that refuses to break down.” Wrote Spin. “[the title track] settles for the simple refrain, ‘I need you so much closer’, A direct and beautiful statement, and that goes double for the album.” While Drowned In Sound thoughtfully assessed it as “Grand without ever being bloated, humane without settling into pessimism, the best indie band in North America remind us why sometimes, the rewards do not equal the output. That’s for you to change.”
Soaking up fans of diverse genres and from different subcultures, Transatlanticism allowed Death Cab for Cutie to press on with even bolder creative ventures on further records. Its breakthrough success further propelled indie’s upward ascent into the mainstream.
So much so that, by the time of the release of 2005’s follow-up; the Grammy-nominated Plans, the band were well-known enough to comfortably stride into the top five of the Billboard Top 200. “It seems to me like we’ve finally found the chemistry that was so close with the other records. There are fewer and fewer near misses as we move along.” Chris Walla reflected (to Somewhere Cold) comparing Transatlanticism to its predecessor. Though larger commercial rewards followed, for many, it’s still Transatlanticism which remains the band’s most creatively focused, cathartically stirring and musically beautiful work.
Death Cab for Cutie, Transatlanticism (Barsuk, 2003)
- Ben Gibbard – Vocals, guitar, piano
- Chris Walla – Guitars, keyboards, sampling, production
- Nick Harmer – Bass
- Jason McGerr – Drums and percussion
Standout Guitar Moment
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