Today marks the release of the 10th anniversary edition of Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism, an album that shaped the life of just about every teenager in the early ’00s. To celebrate the occasion we tapped into the nostalgia drives of our writing team and asked them to reminisce on each track. See what they had to say. And don’t forget to leave us your Transatlanticism memories in the comments below.
1. The New Year
“The New Year” is one of the most opaquely emotional songs I can think of (“Hmm, Jia,” said the psychiatrist. “Why do you think you like your emotion… opaque“), and maybe that’s why I love it, or else I just have an inexplicable soft spot for it, or else I only listen to it when I’m all too stoned. Certainly that was the case one night freshman year when I was with my two best guy friends, for whom the “Oh, you like Death Cab way too much also? And Chipotle? And weed blackouts?” commonality was opaque, emotional and very, very strong. Some joke sprang to life about “The New Year” that made us listen to it a hundred times to make sure Ben Gibbard wasn’t actually pronouncing “firecrackers” like “fireKKKKrackers.” And the repetition–or maybe the seductive amounts of Axe they were spraying all around the dorm room to cover our tracks–or probably, really, the way you have to wait so breathlessly long for the chorus–something, anyway, made me fall in love.
This track is just a good one. Lyrically it’s Death Cab’s satisfying backseat literalism, edited into palatability: “So this is the New Year, and I have no resolutions for self-assigned penance, for problems with easy solutions.” And there’s that noise, the gorgeous static in the back, the conversational and twinkling guitar line, the restraint before the chorus, the tween hug of it when it finally comes.
— Jia Tolentino (@jiatolentino)
It’s tough putting the effect Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism has had on my life into words. Nostalgia bombs like “The New Year” and the eponymous slow burner bring back memories of laying in the grass, staring at the stars and finally figuring out what that whole existentialism thing was about. But a decade’s worth of reflection finds yours truly even less able to comprehend those moments than he could back then. That’s why it seems a bit more appropriate to take on “Lightness” here. Coming from an early teenhood unabashedly marked by endless hours listening to pop-punk/emo bands in shin-length shorts and foot-wide skater shoes (I never skated), listening to Ben Gibbard’s “Oh Woah Oh” refrain in “Lightness” marked the first time in memory I appreciated how simple, wordless melodies could be used to achieve so much more. Music is more than just power chords, a lesson that has gone far in shaping who I am today. Cheers to Ben for sending me down a frosted-tips-less path.
— Adrian Maseda (@allthingsgo)
3. Title And Registration
At the risk of stating the obvious: Getting dumped fucking sucks, especially when you are young. It sucks at any age, of course, but there’s something about getting dumped in your youth that compounds the pain. The lack of experience, not having the knowledge that you’ll get through this…the first time that you are dumped is a huge, horrifying void. You can’t see the other side. You don’t even know that there can be another side. You’re a stupid fucking kid, of course. But you don’t know that. You know that it hurts, and you know that you miss her.
It was in a situation not unlike the one described above that I first listened to Death Cab for Cutie. I was an emotional wreck at the time, in danger of failing courses at the New England boarding school I was attending. It was winter. I was sitting in my friend Steve’s room, and “Title and Registration” came on. We were studying, but I stopped and listened to the lyrics, and then I got up and walked out of the room.
I think it was Gibbard’s directness that got me. The dude wasn’t afraid to say what he wanted to say. While with the other sad bastard music I was listening to at the time I had to stretch to connect the lyrics to my own situation, there wasn’t much stretchin’ needed with Gibbard. “There’s no blame for how our love did slowly fade / And now that it’s gone it’s like it wasn’t there at all.” Message heard.
I listened to this song a lot over the next few months, until I stopped. I got my shit together eventually, too.
I grew up. And now, like Gibbard in the song, every once in a while I’ll root through a glove compartment or desk drawer in my old room and find some reminder of that time. But I don’t lie awake at night filled with disappointment and regret. I smile. It was a long time ago. Shit. I was young.
4. Expo ’86
As it does for many others in my generation, Transatlanticism brings back memories of high school boyfriends and the dozens of mix CDs given and received as acts of young love. Emo boys at heart, my former flames always stuck to Death Cab’s “existential” songs when crafting mixes. My adolescent self was unimpressed by the musings about a glove compartment on “Title and Registration,” but was still intrigued enough by Death Cab to dig a bit deeper.
With “Expo ‘86”, I’d finally arrived at a song I loved on my own, something that I would hold on to after flings fizzled in the drama of high school. Upbeat enough for head-nodding and foot-tapping, it’s one of the first tracks I’d ever heard that juxtaposed a nervous story in the lyrics with such casually confident music. The feeling of “waiting for something to go wrong” is one we can experience at any age, giving “Expo ‘86” an added relevance and timelessness that isn’t always present in today’s new music.
— Allie Prescott (@thatalliegator)
5. The Sound Of Settling
As far as “The Sound of Settling” is concerned, I’m in the camp of listeners that experienced it the way God intended: as a bi-product of my unrefined adolescent obsession with a television serial. The O.C., in all its shimmering banter-fueled glory, will always be a part of this song, just like the drums, and the “bah-bahs,” and the (now weirdly dated) guitar tone. It seems like just yesterday I was bathing in the hyper-tight SoCal glow emanating from my television, mind reeling in pursuit of that lightning quick dialogue as slick as Sandy Cohen’s jet black mane, knowing beyond all shadow of a doubt that the band from the poster with the bird and the yarn must be pretty good if my main man Seth thinks they’re good.
It’s too bad that none of the O.C. decade anniversary look-back think pieces from earlier this year touched on the show’s relationship to music. Oh, wait, absolutely all of them did, because mass-appeal indie was more pivotal to the show’s cultural impact than Mischa Barton, Adam Brody, and Peter Gallagher’s scenery-chewing mega-brows combined. Kids, this time period represented the last gasp of the term “indie” as a viable descriptor for anything; The O.C. was playing fiddle (distorted guitar) while Rome (Brooklyn) burned. Looking back, nothing makes more sense than Death Cab serving as an Official Cool Band Sponsor of the show: Transatlanticism at its best, like The O.C. at its best, paints in broad, inclusive strokes designed for easy access, while also harboring a treasure-trove of hidden depth for the patient, the thoughtful, the challenge-seeking cultural consumer.
I like that I get to feel privileged to have experienced “The Sound of Settling” back in its zeitgeist. The O.C. happened 10 years ago. Death Cab for Cutie happened 10 years ago (yes, Transatlanticism was their “happening,” and if you don’t think so you can hand over your mason jar full of Chris Walla-flavored Kool Aid and call a cab home). This is an era we can really look back on now, and it’s one that my generation gets to claim, for better or worse. If I were to comment on the YouTube video right now, I might say something like this:
“I learned about Death Cab for Cutie from The O.C., one of the best television programs in the history of the medium. This song was one of the first songs I ever purchased on iTunes, the year iTunes came out. I liked this song because it was melodic, smart, and also kind of rocked, a combo that was still pretty interesting back in 2003. This song will always make me think about learning; about love, music, and the importance of being challenged by culture. And Chrismukkah. And bagels.”
— Justin McCarthy (@justinsmccarthy)
6. Tiny Vessels
Look, on a scale of one to brutal, this song doesn’t even register. Sometimes we just get it all wrong, wrong, wrong, and it’s a whole different kind of ache to be the callous heart-ruiner. A different ache than say, “A Lack of Color,” which in a twisted parallel plays out the other half of what “Tiny Vessels” lays out. A four minute, twenty-two second Jacobean tragedy disguised as a song about a hickey, this is the point on Transatlanticism where DCFC hits the first word of their band name the hardest. To all my high school boyfriends: look, I had it all wrong. Even ten years later, every time “Tiny Vessels” seeps out effortlessly into “Transatlanticism,” my heart turns into a rocket ship and flies directly into the core of the sun.
— Fiona Hanly (@fionahhh)
Perhaps, as young people often do, I used to see a more sentimental world than I do now; maybe the singular, text-based expressions of self that were AIM profiles conditioned our ears to seek out more than just interesting beats. Either way, it seems the mainstream appreciation of lyrics in popular music has waned since I was in high school, and I wonder if Death Cab could have gained such a strong following if Ben Gibbard had just appeared on the scene today. The band’s complex, meandering, narrative-heavy lines (our appreciation of which confirmed the complexity of our own narratives) don’t suit Twitter, and certainly not Instagram.
“Transatlanticism” gave us the couple who woke up to find the entire Atlantic Ocean between them. At 8 minutes long, it’s hard to believe the song only contains 15 individual lines of lyrics, but each word held its own: “The rhythm of my footsteps crossing flatlands to your door have been silenced forever more. / The distance is quite simply much too far for me to row / It seems farther than ever before…I need you so much closer.” The same month, The Strokes were praising the virtues of bathroom hookups; thank God someone was around to remind us that you could put every one of your feelings into another person, even as they faded away from you, and that was cool, too.
I remember my best friend copying these lyrics into her AIM profile to let everyone in school know her perfect romance was not as it appeared. At the time, all she saw were “islands where no island should go.” A couple of weeks ago, after figuratively rowing across a literal ocean, she got engaged to her perfect man. Our high school selves would like to thank Death Cab for reminding us that even when the distance may seem too far to row, our meandering narratives will lead us to a much closer island: the one where we belong.
8. Passenger Seat
I’ve spent the last seven years of my life in Brooklyn, NY home of walking-distance anything, bikes, and 24-hour public transportation. Of overshared public spaces and cars reserved for paid late-night rides home and trips to and from the airport. Before that, though, I was a Midwestern boy through and through and driving was not only a rite of passage, but a way of life. So it is, then, that for me “Passenger Seat” remains the single most evocative track from Transatlanticism.
It brings back a hundred memories of cool evenings during those quicksilver years past adolescence but before responsible adulthood. Nights spent cruising under sparkling skies trying to mark the difference between the fleeting and the constant; between the beautiful and the dependable; between shooting stars and satellites. Windows down, radio up, wanting and need to be someone’s pride, someone’s guide, someone’s everything. The song is at once full of the soothing nature of miles beneath your tires, and the desperate, confused yearning of youth. It’s gorgeous and heartbreaking in all the ways our early 20s are supposed to be.
9. Death Of An Interior Decorator
This song can’t be a completely straightforward interpretation of Interiors, Woody Allen’s semi-obscure 1989 homage to Ingmar Bergman… Ben wouldn’t do that; at least not just that. Despite lyrics that all but play out the film scene-by-scene, there is something more to the antepenultimate track on Transatlanticism that appealed to a generation of angst-ridden teen-through-twenty somethings in a way that Allen’s cinematic melancholia never could. Chock full of ennui-filled lines like “I feel a real need to express something but I don’t know what I want to express or how to express it,” Interiors inspired Gibbard to create the pitch-perfect soundtrack to my 15 – 18 year old life, the song that—along with featuring prominently on every mixtape my high school boyfriend ever made me—made me feel like someone finally understood the faith, betrayal, bleakness, and insanity of what it is to be a teenage girl. <Fade to black>
— Emma Forster (@emmacforster)
10. We Looked Like Giants
The first CD I ever bought was for the single “Basketcase” off Green Day’s seminal album Dookie. I was 11 years old or so, and I would run around my bedroom waiting for the part where Billie Joe Armstrong would wail, “Grasping to control (oh-oh-oh-ol), so I better hold on.” I was too young to know what Mr. Armstrong meant earlier in the song when he asked if he was just stoned, but that breakdown was one of the first times I remember having a favorite “moment ” in music. I just loved that cathartic burst of energy in the middle of the line. I would wait for it, jump on my bed, and launch myself as high in the air as I could when the song exploded. It was the first time I remember feeling like I was living what the music I was listening to was singing about.
But “We Looked Like Giants” was something bigger.
When I think of this song, I think of sneaking around with my high school girlfriend when I was 16, driving around the neighborhood streets of my hometown and taking advantage of sporadic deserted parking lots. I think of hearing the second stanza’s lines, “When every Thursday/I’d brave those mountain passes/and you’d skip your early class/and we’d learn how our bodies worked.”
I think of how this song was the first time I felt like music was articulating my life as I was living it instead of the other way around.
Ben Gibbard and Death Cab for Cutie existed in an era where Seth Cohen and Zach Braff helped ease earnestness into mainstream acceptance, so call it right-place/right-time, but their ability to sentimentalize and eloquently express the Romantic aspects of the human condition was otherworldly. Transatlanticism, 10 years later, is still a testament to that ability and will forever be enshrined as the soundtrack to a particular generation’s emotional maturation.
— Bryce Rudow (@brycetrudow)
11. A Lack Of Color
Death Cab for Cutie met me at a very strange time in my life. Granted, Freshmen year of high school is a strange time in most adolescent lives, but nothing seemed to encapsulate my unique angst. My angst, of course, was as unoriginal as a sexy cat costume on Halloween, but Ben Gibbard had a gift for making each and every song feel like it was written with me–and me alone–in mind.
The O.C. did the same thing for 16-year-old me. I too, had a hot girlfriend like Marissa Cooper, lived in paradise, was shot by my handsome deadbeat brother, and had a dad with flawless hair (ok, that part is true). Still, none of the absurd plot twists could prevent the crew from getting together at The Bait Shop for a concert from the indie game’s hottest buzz bands, a ritual my friends and I mimicked by meeting every Thursday in our friend’s basement to drink Arbor Mist and watch the show.
Now, imagine combining these two trademarks of my young high school life. Josh Schwartz did just that, using DCFC’s “A Lack of Color” during the first season, when Anna decides to leave Newport for Pittsburgh (MISTAKE). As if that wasn’t enough, Death Cab returned to the show in season two to hit The Bait Shop stage. I’d like to pretend that I didn’t go home after the basement “party” and watch the episode two more times, but it would be wrong to deny the true history of my braces-ridden 16-year-old self. Thank you, Death Cab For Cutie, for providing me with a seminal moment of my young, wholly un-unique childhood.