One of the quickest and most effective ways to feel really old is to come upon news that a record that was integral to your early adulthood (which, in your mind, was not that long ago) is coming up on its tenth birthday. For a generation of college-radio, indie-rock faithful, Death Cab For Cutie‘s Transatlanticism soundtracked an era of introspection, experimentation and plain-old growing up. The record itself is a landmark in the band’s maturation, standing as a bridge between the group’s early, echoing, cavernous, sparse work and the higher production values and poppier hooks that grew from here on out. It represents the first steps the band took out of the indie waters and into mainstream success.
Ten-year milestones are, in general, times for looking back and wondering at the different paths different choices would have led down, and this re-release gives fans a rare listen at what those alternate decisions would have sounded like for this record. The band has released demo versions of each song, many of which vary significantly from what ended up on the final album.
Several tracks show an influence from Ben Gibbard’s experimentation with electronic sounds with the Postal Service. The huge, fuzzy, reverberating guitars riffs that kick off opening number “The New Year” are replaced with light synth beats and gentle picking, and instead of opening with a slow drum beat and melancholic background drone, “Lightness” begins with steady beatboxing. By contrast, pop gem “Sound Of Settling” appears here as a slow, thoughtful, slightly monotone acoustic number.
Some changes are more subtle, as is the case with “Expo ’86” seeming largely intact but for a dose of mid-90s indie guitars, and with “Tiny Vessels” which seems like a well-crafted, soft cover of the song Death Cab fans have come to know. “Title And Registration” sounds musically much like what was released in 2003, however, considerable changes in the lyrics result in a demo that’s a bit more uncertain and that pulls considerably less on the heartstrings.
Interestingly, it seems that the hauntingly pretty piano playing on “Passenger Seat” made it through the recording process virtually untouched, as did the minimalist “Lack Of Color” and the throw back to Death Cab’s more indie roots, “Death Of An Interior Decorator.”
This tenth anniversary demo release is an exercise in might-have-been; a glimpse, like those we all imagine when looking back at a decade of our own myriad choices, at a different reality. Any discussion of which collection of Transatlanticism is superior is largely pointless since there’s no way to know what the demos would have sounded like with the production love the songs of the final release got, and after ten years it’s tough to separate the finished songs from the connotations they’ve picked up. Think, rather, about the changes the songs went through as they grew with the record, and the changes we went through as we did the same.