According to dictionary.com, “transatlanticism” is not a word. When searching the definition, after informing you of this fact, the site prompts you “Did you mean trans atlanticism?” and then tells you that’s not a word either. The fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary defines “transatlantic” as “on the other side of the Atlantic” or “spanning or crossing the Atlantic.” It seems that the very act of trying to find a definition for this word sums up the feeling of the album itself—trying to put a name to a feeling that cannot be described. With their latest full-length release, Death Cab For Cutie has validated “transatlanticism” as a word. The songs on this album are restless, gorgeous, expansive, and, well, transatlantic.
Love and loss have always been themes explored in Death Cab’s music. Part of the reason it works so well is because of the contrast between their lyrical content and the way the music itself sounds. The most successful example of this is with “The Sound of Settling,” with its “ba-ba, ba-ba” choruses, handclaps, and ringing guitars. It takes you several listens to fully let the sadness of the lyrics sink in and realize with some irony that kids at shows are going to most likely be gleefully singing along to lyrics like “Are you this fleeting? / Old age is just around the bend.” In the breathless, angry, driven “We Looked Like Giants,” singer Ben Gibbard puts it in almost Puritanical terms: “Goddamn the black night / with all its foul temptations.”
Elsewhere, topics that have become indie rock staples are revisited—failed relationships, absent parents (“Death of an Interior Decorator”), tender love songs (“Passenger Seat”), themes that Death Cab has expanded upon previously which would sink into cliche in less capable hands. The beauty of this album is that it feels both intensely personal and universal at the same time. The stunning, eight-minute title track builds to a chorus of “I need you so much closer,” which will most assuredly become an anthem to long-distance relationships everywhere. Yet the listener feels almost like he is reading a diary, like he is witnessing something that he shouldn’t.
Death Cab for Cutie has fashioned a career out of wearing its bleeding, broken heart on its sleeve without trying or ever feeling overwrought, and that is what makes them so compelling. With Transatlanticism they have taken this concept, to borrow a phrase from Gibbard’s side project, to “such great heights” that it’s impossible not to be moved.