Transatlanticism

11 February 2010 § Leave a comment

Introducing one of 21 albums chosen haphazardly for no more reason than I felt like talking about it:

Transatlanticism (2003) by Death Cab for Cutie

Track Listing
1. The New Year
2. Lightness
3. Title and Registration
4. Expo ’86
5. The Sound of Settling
6. Tiny Vessels
7. Transatlanticism
8. Passenger Seat
9. Death of an Interior Decorator
10. We Looked Like Giants
11. A Lack of Color

Transatlanticism kicks off with “The New Year,” which seems to also mark a parting:

“I wish the world was flat like the old days
Then I could travel just by folding a map
No more airplanes, or speedtrains, or freeways
There’d be no distance that can hold us back.”

The separation, as suggested here and by the title (and the title track), seems to be between the singer and his lover who, presumably, has moved from the state to Europe, or somewhere across the Atlantic. If not strictly a concept album, Transatlanticism seems to at least be unified by the theme of this ambiguous separation / long-distance relationship.

“Lightness” is an ode to gentle desire that doesn’t immediately fit in with the theme. “There is a tear in the fabric of your favorite dress” leads to the refrain “Ivory lines lead,” which likely refers to either her legs or the lines of her undergarments. “Title and Registration” moves from whimsy (“The glove compartment is inaccurately named / And everybody knows it / So I’m proposing a swift orderly change”) to heartbreak (“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”) via subtle shift over the course of the song. It seems now that the speaker is separated from his beloved, but finds signs of her and their old life all around him, including in the glove box. “Expo ’86” further details the drain of an undefined relationship, where, it seems, there has been a separation:

“Sometimes it seems that I don’t have the skills to recollect
The twists and turns of plots that took us from lovers to friends
I’m thinking I should take that volume back up off the shelf
And crack it’s weary spine and read to help remind myself.”

But the story is so unclear, that he thinks they may yet be together: “But if I move my place in line, I’ll lose / And I have waited, the anticipation’s got me glued.” “The Sound of Settling” repeats its eponymous refrain – indeed, the refrain of the entire album – as the singer contemplates what he could have differently:

“Our youth is fleeting
Old age is just around the bend
And I can’t wait to go gray
And I’ll sit in wonder
Of every love that could’ve been
If I’d only thought of something
Charming to say.”

In “Tiny Vessels” the speaker reflects on a relationship in which he “wanted to believe in all the words that [he] was speaking,” but couldn’t. He told her he loved her, but says, “You are beautiful, but you don’t mean a thing to me.” If the album is meant to be a unified concept, the song likely refers to an attempt to replace the lover who has made the transatlantic journey. The next song, “Transatlanticism,” is an over 7-minute song that mostly repeats the refrain “I need you so much closer.” It imagines the creation of the Atlantic as a moat the prevents the singer from gaining access to his beloved.

“Passenger Seat” is a tranquil meditation; the narrator is accepting of his lack of control in his relationship and offers what he can in it. “Death of an Interior Decorator” seems largely unrelated to the rest of the songs on the album. It seems to be about a woman who has three children, whose husband leaves her, and who decides to commit suicide by walking into the ocean (a la Kate Chopin’s The Awakening?). But “We Looked Like Giants” returns to the central theme, with a brisker pace and the singer reminiscing:

“Remembering when you were mine
In a still suburban town
When every Thursday
I’d brave those mountain passes
And you’d skip your early classes
And we’d learn how our bodies worked

Goddamn the black night
With all its foul temptations
I’ve become what I always hated
When I was with you there
We looked like giants.”

Finally, “A Lack of Color” ends on a familiarly melancholy note of absence, loss, and coldness – even if beneath it all there is passion:

“If you feel discouraged
When there’s a lack of color here
Please don’t worry lover
It’s really bursting at the seams
Absorbing everything
The spectrum’s A to Z.”

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