Death Cab For Cutie's 'Transatlanticism' turns 10 -- looking back at a classic indie-rock album

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Earlier this year, the Postal Service celebrated the 10-year anniversary of its landmark one-off album Give Up

That album still holds up remarkably well, but it’s unfair to talk about Give Up without discussing frontman Ben Gibbard’s other landmark accomplishment from 2003: Death Cab For Cutie’s Transatlanticism, which came out a decade ago today.

The creation of Transatlanticism is not as romantic as the long-distance construction of the Postal Service’s Give Up, but Gibbard was working on both albums simultaneously, and it’s fair to think of the two as bookends; though there are thematic and tonal crossovers, they come from two very different places.

“Strangely, I don’t think the two records have much to do with each other as far as the emotional tone,” Gibbard told EW earlier this year. “I felt like I could shift pretty seamlessly between working on Postal Service and then turning around and writing a Death Cab song.” Gibbard allowed the tracks that Postal Service collaborator Jimmy Tamborello was sending him to dictate the emotional tone of the songs themselves, while Transatlanticism is the product of Death Cab’s collective hive mind.

Transatlanticism ended up being the band’s final release for indie label Barsuk (they signed to Atlantic to release their next album, Plans, in 2005), and it also represents the first recordings with drummer Jason McGerr. The band had been steadily gaining an audience via an endless tour schedule and some airplay on the last vestiges of college radio. The single “A Movie Script Ending,” from their 2001 release The Photo Album, had received some airplay and was gaining traction as an underground favorite even before the song had its breakout moment on The O.C.

Fox’s early-aughts teen drama was a hugely important step for Death Cab For Cutie. As Adam Brody’s character’s favorite band, they went from beloved indie secret to hipster buzzword with striking efficiency, and though Transatlanticism would have earned respectable numbers even without the nod, it’s not surprising that Death Cab made its first appearance in the Billboard 200 the week after Transatlanticism’s release—and a mere three weeks after “A Movie Script Ending” appeared on The O.C. 

It’s no wonder that Seth Cohen (and, by extension, series creator Josh Schwartz) would love Death Cab For Cutie and especially adore Transatlanticism: Gibbard was 27 when Transatlanticism came out (the same age as Schwartz when The O.C. premiered), and the album plays like a definitive post-grad statement for the new millennium, simultaneously knee-bendingly grandiose, naively romantic, and existentially exhausted—and that’s just the epic title track, which features Gibbard giving the refrain “I need you so much closer” a different read every time, each one more heartbreaking than the last.

But that’s the climax. The album opens with a stuttering guitar swirl called “The New Year” that kicks off with one of the great introductory lines in rock history: “So this is the new year/ And I don’t feel any different.” (On the comedown scale, that’s right up there with “Teenage angst has paid off well/ Now I’m bored and old.”) There’s a sadness there, but it’s also deeply romantic—in order to be let down like that, you have to first believe that something like the changing of the calendar can be deeply transformative.

Now compare that to something like Postal Service’s “Sleeping In,” a far jauntier tune that flips the script on “The New Year.” Rather than get weighed down in little details, Gibbard shrugs it off on “Sleeping In.” “‘Sleeping In’ is such a playful kind of thing, at least in its structure and chord changes. It’s almost a doo-wop kind of song,” Gibbard told EW. “So to me, it didn’t make sense to have that be really serious or heavy. It should be something more playful.” It’s hard to call anything on Transatlanticism “playful,” though the spry backbeat of “The Sound of Settling” is as close to dance-worthy as Death Cab gets.

At the end of the month, Barsuk will be reissuing an expanded version of Transatlanticism, the album that became the band’s gateway into a world of festival headlining slots and Grammy nominations. That album would have been impossible without Give Up, and in turn, Give Up would probably not have been as big as it got without a boost from Death Cab’s rising tide. The bottom line is this: In 2003, it was a pretty good year to be Ben Gibbard.

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