Tragedy plus distance equals comedy, says the old formula. But in Transatlanticism, Death Cab For Cutie offers a different math: love plus distance equals tragedy. In song after song, this album looks at many kinds of distance from love, from physical to temporal to emotional and more, and the damage it does to people. That these words about distance live inside music that feels incredibly immediate and intimate makes them even more powerful.
The title track is a perfect example. Gentle piano chords float over a soft but churning rhythm track, sounding like faraway machinery. Ben Gibbard’s voice comes in, draped in reverb and echo, so close to us we can hear his every breath. “The Atlantic was born today, and I’ll tell you how…” The music builds in power, electric guitar mixed equal with the vocal, and equally reverberating, with a synth drone behind it all, slowly growing louder.
The lyrics tell a metaphorical story of an ocean suddenly appearing between the singer and his lover. We can’t tell whether he’s talking about physical distance in a stylized way, or emotional distance in a metaphorical way, but we know it’s painful. “I thought it less like a lake, and more like a moat / The rhythm of my footsteps crossing flatlands to your door have been silenced forevermore / The distance is quite simply much too far for me to row / It seems farther than ever before.” Then the drums come in, and a ritual chant: “I need you so much closer.” Over and over again. “So come on, come on…” Over and over in grand, layered chorus. This tour de force lasts for eight minutes of increasing intensity, simultaneously wrenching and elevating.
Then there’s the breathtaking “We Looked Like Giants.” Surrounded by a turbulent, crashing riff, Gibbard reminisces about a mutual coming of age, where “I’d brave those mountain passes / And you’d skip your early classes / And we’d learn how our bodies worked.” The memory is achingly sweet, a time of closeness that’s never been matched in his life since. And now he feels completely alienated from it: “God damn the black night, with all its foul temptations / I’ve become what I always hated, when I was with you then.” That distance, combined with the vividness of the memory, underscores the narrator’s tragedy.
In “Death Of An Interior Decorator”, the character has aged away from her authentic self, and the love she once had has abandoned her. In “The New Year”, Gibbard offers sharp observations about our strange New Year’s Eve rituals, but completes them with a thwarted yearning for closeness, wishing for a world where “there’d be no distance that could hold us back.” In “The Sound Of Settling” the narrator finds himself in a relationship and a life far away from the one he’d imagined. In the brilliant “Title And Registration” he watches the gap open between himself and his love, who drives away while he can do nothing but look at the old pictures of them together.
“Expo ’86” isn’t so much about distance as repetition — Gibbard uses the metaphor of a Ferris wheel to talk about his cyclical pattern of entering relationships even as he anticipates their end. The structure of the whole record echoes this circular metaphor, as the low buzzing that ends “A Lack Of Color” is the same sound that begins “The New Year”. And he makes the point in “The New Year”: “I don’t feel any different.” For as hard as he tries, for as far as he travels, nothing changes.
The song that steps furthest outside this frame of painful distance is “Passenger Seat”. I think it’s the most beautiful song on the album. Not only does it paint a gorgeous portrait of intimacy and affection, it does so in music that feels both hushed and overwhelming, like being inside the transcendent quiet that can descend between two people who need no words. The picture of these two driving together, talking about the stars, and the incredible feeling of safety between them — “With my feet on the dash / The world doesn’t matter” — completely earns the heartfelt declarations of everlasting devotion that end the song. It’s a portrait of true love so convincing that there can be no questioning the pain of distance from it.