Death Cab For Cutie

Barsuk Records, 2003

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


As I alluded to recently under less happy circumstances, one of the main side benefits of this gig is the opportunity to be introduced to new music. When the Daily Vault's very own Sean McCarthy put Death Cab For Cutie's Transatlanticism near the peak of his 2003 Top Ten, I paid attention. (Although it did take me awhile to get around to making the purchase... so much music, so little time.)

After a few listens, there's no longer any puzzle as to why this disc made any number of Top Ten lists this January. It's a moody, airy, brilliant compendium of artfully crafted songs whose quality actually lives up to their pretensions.

For the record, Death Cab For Cutie (DCFC to fans) is anchored by singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard and guitarist/producer Christopher Walla, with longtime cohort Nicholas Harmer on bass and new guy Jason McGerr on the drums. Gibbard and Walla also contribute keyboards and textures that fill out the atmospherics of many of these tracks.nbtc__dv_250

The music itself is a mix of ethereal ballads sung with genuine sadness and powerful yet sleepy-eyed guitars-and-harmonies rock. The songs are a circular, yearning series of vignettes, little moments that blur into each other like an Impressionist painting. More sophisticated than Jimmy Eat World and wittier than Coldplay, with Tranatlanticism Death Cab For Cutie have created a genuine album, themed and flowing and progressive in its moods and expressiveness.

Which is not to say there aren't moments that stand out… the anthemic yet indelibly sad opener "The New Year" ... the strange, beautiful passages and jams late in songs like "We Looked Like Giants"… the evocative lyrical detail of tracks like "Title And Registration" and "Tiny Vessels" … the way "The Sound Of Settling" juxtaposes sunny harmonies and ringing guitars with a profoundly downbeat lyric about surrendering dreams and settling for what you can get... and the way even the muscular passages of cuts like "Expo '86" manifest a kind of elegance and drama.

Most of the songs run the standard three or four minutes, with the notable exception of the title track. By contrast, "Transatlanticism" is given abundant room to build and build, and is thoroughly successful from its haunting opening chords to its crescendoing finish, almost eight minutes later. It's an opus that earns the space it's allowed.

It also distills the theme of this disc -- the distance between people, even when they're close… maybe especially then. "I need you closer" sings Gibbard, again and again, with more and more longing and urgency in his expressive voice. Another example of this theme is the heartbreaking matter-of-factness with which Gibbard delivers the line "She's beautiful, but she don't mean a thing to me" in "Tiny Vessels." In this respect, as in many others, Transatlanticism harks back to Pink Floyd's original brand of dreamy despair and alienation. Death Cab forgoes Floyd's flashes of anger, though, in favor of a particularly poetic strain of resignation.

Elegance and drama, despair and resignation… yes, this is as British an album as has ever been recorded in Seattle. In the end, I'm not sure Transatlanticism is an album I'll listen to all that often -- it's too sad. What I am sure of, is that it's one of the notable musical achievements of this young decade.

Rating: A

User Rating: A


I believe this is the album of the decade! There, I said it. I can't beleive "bands" like Creed and Korn sell millions of albums, and this gem has yet to be even certified gold. No one writes sad songs like Ben Gibbard. Listen to this disc if you're emotionally in a good place. If you've just been dumped, Transatlanticism will plunge you into depression. But I guarantee, it won't stop you from repeated listenings.

© 2004 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Barsuk Records, and is used for informational purposes only.