Death Cab for Cutie
as it really been more than two years since the last Death Cab For Cutie album? You wouldn't know it with Ben Gibbard's name appearing on no less than seven releases since then. His excursions into glitch (Dntel), dance pop (The Postal Service), and solo artistry (the reissued All -Time Quarterback and a spot in Post-Parlo Records' Home EP series) signaled a newfound sense of exploration and creativity, but at what cost? How much can we listen to someone before they render themselves irrelevant? On Transatlanticism, the first outing from his mainstay group since 2001's The Photo Album, Ben Gibbard finally reaches full saturation. His melodic presence, however strong can't help but feel like retread at nearly every point. His lyrics, which have grown progressively more asinine and barely retain the bite shown on earlier efforts like We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes, are inescapable afterthought. In fact, if anything, it feels like Gibbard has regressed to the point where he sits in the shadow of his bandmate and producer, Chris Walla.
After slowly but surely forging his craft on each successive release Walla has finally stumbled upon brilliance in the elegant details of Transatlanticism. His graceful touch brings a cohesiveness that could have otherwise been lost to the fold. The cavernous swell that underpins much of the record is a stunning nod to the concurrent themes of physical and emotional distance, and is what once and for all separates it from the rest of the Death Cab canon. In fact, it's within these expansive boundaries that the album finds its footing, and beyond them where it falters.
After the grand, distorted strums of opener "The New Year," Transatlanticism sinks into quick tedium with the synth hums of "Lightness" and drum machines of "Title and Registration". "Expo 86" feels more like a summation of The Photo Album's strengths with none of the freshness, while the short jauntiness of "The Sound of Settling" adds nothing new. It is not until "Tiny Vessels", six songs in, that the record finds its purpose. The first part of a very strong three part suite, "Tiny Vessels" signals a jarring turnaround in quality. Playing like a massive version of The Forbidden Love EP's "Technicolor Girls", "Vessels" finds Gibbard finally stumbling upon a cunning melody, while Walla falls head-on into his best production yet. The distant flickers that segue into the title track build over a snail-like piano figure and wide, gradual guitar pickings before climaxing in a massive rush of thunderous drums and a full-group chorus. It's easily the largest scale the band, or Gibbard himself for that matter, have ever recorded on, and its success feels like a revelation in light of the record's plodding first half. The calm afterwards yields what is debatably the record's best song, the nearly orchestral and quietly lush "Passenger Seat", which sounds like an outtake from Ben Folds Five's 1999 swan song, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, in the best sense. Two songs later, this high water mark is rejoined with the gorgeous closer, "A Lack of Color," where Gibbard brutalizes your inner romantic with a weeper on par with Facts' "405." Sadly, though, this newfound cohesiveness is interrupted by another Photo Album soundalike in "Death of an Interior Decorator".
The latter recesses of "We Looked Like Giants" encapsulate everything that went wrong here: an unnecessary electronic presence, needlessly layered acoustic guitars, and new drummer Jason McGerr's competent yet listless work, which pales in comparison to the greatly missed Mike Schorr, who brought an authority and boldness to previous efforts. At the same time, we see Chris Walla's touch give personality to homogeny. That, in the end, is the face of Transatlanticism. Death Cab For Cutie have recorded yet another singular album in their discography, but at an obvious price.
Amazingly, a case has been made to go orchestral or take a swing at full-on minimalism-- both would be brilliantly handled by the up-and-coming Walla. But despite Transatlanticism's weaknesses, whenever we next meet Death Cab, it will certainly prove interesting. More so if it's a quieter next two years.
Reviewed by: Colin McElligatt
Reviewed on: 2003-10-09