To me, Transatlanticism isn’t just the best Death Cab For Cutie album; it’s the quintessential 2000s rock record. It takes the bookish sounds that peers like the Shins, Modest Mouse, and Jimmy Eat World were exploring around the same time and casts them in a jarringly vulnerable glow.
Death Cab formed in 1997, in Bellingham Washington. They emerged towards the end of the regional grunge boom, and their fledgling work flirts with the tropes of that genre, while also embracing the then-groundbreaking stylings of indie rock. On the records Something About Airplanes and We Have the Facts And We’re Voting Yes, wiry riffs rest atop muted grooves. Singer Ben Gibbard’s chirpily delivered lyrics about blue collar labor and romance seem at once indebted to K Records and Elliott Smith.
Death Cab came into their own with The Photo Album, which found them embracing higher-quality production. The 2001 record sold more than 50,000 copies, saw three singles chart in the UK, and got an endearingly goofy shoutout on trendy television show The O.C. But it was on 2003’s Transatlanticism — released 20 years ago this Saturday — that Death Cab solidified their place as a formidable force in alternative music.
The album came to life as the members of Death Cab grappled with interpersonal tension. The band began recording Transatlanticism in 2002, but seemed to cherish their time apart: the record was born in a series of curt, five-day sessions. After coming close to breaking up on tour, Gibbard briefly moved to Los Angeles. Other members considered different career paths — guitarist Chris Walla pulled the strings behind records from the Decemberists and the Thermals, while second drummer Michael Schorr departed the band entirely.
Transatlanticism also hit shelves shortly after the Postal Service’s Give Up — a one-off, Sub Pop-issued electro-pop record, on which Gibbard teamed up with SoCal ambient virtuoso Jimmy Tamborello (aka Dntel). The album was an unexpected smash, moving over 500,000 copies; an Iron & Wine cover of the song “Such Great Heights” even landed a placement in a psychedelic M&M’s ad. The breakout success of Give Up — released on a bigger label than Death Cab’s Barsuk and selling better than any Death Cab LP before it — was another factor that could have spelled the end of Death Cab in a different timeline.
The music on Transatlanticism mirrors the tenuousness that birthed it. The album opens with some of the most jaded words ever laid to tape, on “The New Year.” “So this is the new year/ And I don’t feel any different,” Gibbard belts over a deceptively complicated instrumental, which emerges from a moody ambient swell. It’s a fitting way to kick off an album that captures what can only be described as Gibbard’s fuckboy era. The front half of Transatlanticism teems with this energy, driven by lyrics about drunken, knowingly doomed relationships. “Tiny Vessels,” in particular, is one of the douchiest emo songs ever penned, thanks to poetic lyrics about getting hickeys from a lover who doesn’t “mean a thing” to Gibbard. “Tiny vessels oozed into your neck/ And formed the bruises/ That you said you didn’t want to fade/ But they did, and so did I that day,” he sings over sludgy fretwork on the bridge.
But Gibbard often contrasts Transatlanticism’s off-putting candidness with absentminded surrealism. On “Lightness” he traces ivory lines on a lover’s skin after peaking up their torn dress; “The Sound Of Settling” finds him spiraling over old age, as he laments missed connections; “Title And Registration” opens with musings about the naming of the glove compartment before things delve into a bittersweet ode to a partner moving. Over the course of the tracklist, 27-year-old Gibbard comes across as an asshole, but a relatable one at that. On these songs, he could practically be quoting a deviant voice in the back of your head.
The second half of Transatlanticism is less dominated by Gibbard’s verse; it’s a strong testament to how skilled the members of Death Cab are as musicians. Recently christened member Jason McGerr is one of the most overlooked drummers in all of rock, and here he shines bright. For evidence, look no further than “Death Of An Interior Decorator” and “We Looked Like Giants,” where his tasteful beats subtly compliment the ennui at the heart of Gibbard’s songwriting. Somehow, the sizzling cymbal work on those tracks is as gut-wrenching as the lyricism.
Walla’s production, too, is masterful. Across 11 songs, he finds ways to seamlessly merge crystalline and distorted tones. Transatlanticism traverses sonic peaks and valleys, but you wouldn’t necessarily clock that on a casual spin — the whole thing sounds incredibly cohesive. In middle school, I was obsessed with watching YouTube footage of Walla shaping Tegan And Sara’s 2007 album The Con. You can trace the impact of this same nuanced touch in the studio when listening to Transatlanticism. The thoughtful artistic flourishes on understated songs like “A Lack Of Color” and the record’s fan-favorite title-track are as captivating as those on “Relief Next to Me” and “Burn Your Life Down.”
Death Cab is, without a doubt, the band that has most profoundly shaped my worldview. I discovered their music in 2008, when my dad showed me Narrow Stairs. His millennial colleagues had been blasting it around the office, so we downloaded “I Will Possess Your Heart” on iTunes together one night. I became obsessed with the eight-minute single and slowly used my allowance (on top of Barnes & Noble Gift cards that I annually received for Christmas) to buy every Death Cab release on CD. At first, the drummer in me was largely enamored with McGerr’s jazzy chops. But my infatuation became increasingly complex over time.
As I grappled with my parents’ divorce as a teenager, Death Cab’s output began to echo on a more intricate level. Their music soundtracked countless interstate car rides to Italian chain restaurants, where I acclimated to new step family. A melodramatic kid, I found solace in songs like “Cath” and “Photobooth,” even though I was too young to relate to their forlorn meanings. But it was Transatlanticism’s “Death Of An Interior Decorator” that hit hardest on those outings, thanks to its sympathetic storytelling about a late-professional abandoned by an unfaithful partner. The lax poignance at the core of Death Cab’s songs has only come to resonate harder as I’ve adjusted to my mid-20s. Transatlanticism — and other Death Cab albums — have scored ill-fated relationships, hangovers, and periods of solitude, simultaneously harkening back to a formative period of my youth.
As I type the final words of this draft, I’m serendipitously sitting on a transatlantic flight. Transatlanticism is the only album I have downloaded on my phone, but not for journalistic reasons. It’s been this way for the last three years; I have a petrifying fear of turbulence, and the most comforting thing to have on me when I’m anxious is familiar music. I’m sitting next to someone I love, and I’m traveling to a country I never thought I’d visit. Things are good, and Death Cab’s opus isn’t hitting for me quite like it has before. But I know the next time things are bad — when I really need it — I’ll put on Transatlanticism and feel it in my bones; I’ll probably sit on my couch and cry.
And that’s the mark of a favorite album. It isn’t a collection of songs that hit you over the head with their ingenuity every time you put them on. It’s a body of work that you know you can turn to when another person isn’t there — like a warm blanket, but so much better.