Albums of Our Lives: Death Cab For Cutie’s Transatlanticism

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When I heard Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism it was the first time I remember seeing sounds, understanding stories told to me set to music. A decade later, I still remember hearing those stories as I sat on the beige carpet in my dusty rose-colored bedroom and listened to the band take a hammer to the glass bubble in which I’d lived for the first part of my adolescence.

1. So this is the new year, and I don’t feel any different.

The hammer crashing on glass sounded like the opening chords of “The New Year.” Two loud strums of an electric guitar and the crashing of cymbals seethed into my blood vessels, adrenaline pumping: they were the popping of champagne bottles, the explosion of fireworks that accompany every stroke of midnight on January 1. They wouldn’t last long. Flowing evening gowns of cobalt and crimson swung serenely next to tuxedos of black and white. Just for the night, the gowns and the tuxedos took on lives without care. Then morning would arrive and all the cares would return—bills to pay, deadlines to meet, requests to accommodate.

2. Ivory lines lead, oh-whoa-oh.

“Lightness” recalled cable knit sweaters of beige wool and the girls who wore them flawlessly, who didn’t have to tug and pull at them to make sure stomachs were covered, who didn’t have to worry about the accidental lumps a sweater like that might make around the middle. The soft purr of Ben Gibbard’s voice twisted and wound itself into that creamy woolen yarn alongside the low whine of a guitar. Boys with hazy, romantic, bespectacled eyes traced the girls’ patterns in static, the curves in their torsos. Real love is looking at someone like they are a beige cable knit sweater: how lucky one is to have something so beautiful designed to keep warm.

3. The glove compartment is inaccurately named and everybody knows it.

In “Title and Registration,” a mess of emotions fall out of a glove compartment. It’s raining, and there are only supposed to be ownership papers and insurance forms inside. With the song’s hollow thump of a drum machine, I imagined a blue and white, one-hour photo store envelope falling out with the thwack of lifeless paper to a carpeted floor. The envelope is filled with pictures from a couple’s spontaneous day trip to the mountains, outside of a city where there are trees as tall as skyscrapers and clouds entirely visible. It was their last ditch effort to save each other from each other. In my mind, she left the pictures there by accident months ago, before everything evaporated with a long sigh one evening after taking the dog for a walk.

4. The squeaking of our skin against the steel has gotten worse.

“Expo ’86” showed me bodies on old mattresses pushing into springs. With every beat of the song’s tambourine I heard the grimy, onomatopoetic crunch of something that should break but instead only compresses again and again. Like a woman who has kept a man on pins and needles, at beck and call. He waits, compressed and strung along, like Pavlov’s dog anticipating meat upon the ringing of the bell. But the bell just keeps ringing and ringing, long after the steel has stopped squeaking. Still, he stands at the door, saliva heavy in his hopeful mouth.

5. I’ve got a hunger twisting my stomach into knots.

There’s never been a happier song about keeping what you don’t want than “The Sound of Settling.” It’s like a couple getting married later in life after an array of partners that would put most buffets to shame. The clanging, effervescent drumbeat calls to mind a clatter of silver trays and tongs in the husband’s and wife’s hands at a rather extensive all-you-can-eat. They each absentmindedly reach not for a stomach-churning dish of hot peppers, as they may have in years past, but for a piece of rye bread. Perhaps rye isn’t the most exotic of foods, but you might not mind having it around forever. The couple doesn’t have the energy for hot peppers anymore. Their tongs touch; they see each other, and settling is just so easy. Passion, heat is far more difficult. It just depends on what you expect from your buffet.

6. And tiny vessels moved into your neck and formed the bruises that you said you didn’t want to fade.

“Tiny Vessels” portrays hickeys oh-so-appealingly. No one wants them from a vile, cheap romance full of lies, but there was something beautiful about those bruises we didn’t want to fade. The blood vessels held together tight, moving to the surface of a delighted victim’s neck, their later appearance a haunting reminder of past pleasures and shame. With the crashing and rupturing of a drum kit, What have I done? seems a question begged of oneself. What was I thinking? They were beautiful but they didn’t mean a thing.

7. I need you so much closer.

Do you? Then you shouldn’t have made “Transatlanticism” so damn long.

8. You are driving me home.

I know what that night looks like in “Passenger Seat.” It’s black, so black it’s almost blue, like the hair of the characters in Archie comics. With each ping of the piano keys I see stars pop through the dark like quiet, tiny rhinestones. Feet are propped on the dashboard to feel the cool air. Windows rolled down, a lone arm hangs out with hand holding up a chin perched thoughtfully, appreciating the passage of time and a breeze through the scalp. We can finally breathe. The world doesn’t matter.

9. It felt just like falling in love again.

“Death of an Interior Decorator” is not about the physical death of the woman in question, but the death of her role as mother. The last daughter married off, she is alone. Gibbard’s lilting voice and Jason McGerr’s steady drumbeat provide a zoom outward on this sad yet stylish interior decorator. I imagined her in red lipstick, with cherry cola hair. She raised three daughters while her now-ex-husband fooled around on his yacht just off Mykonos with whatever tanned, blonde, plastic broad accompanied him that week. Her palms were stuck with thorns while assembling bushel after bushel of roses for the wedding, soft petals brushing against her fingertips in time to that ba-ba drumbeat. The roses are a gift to her child this time, but they felt just like falling in love again.

10. We looked like giants in the back of my grey subcompact.

“We Looked Like Giants” captures the fervor of being young and in love. Bodies too big for the crowded backseat of a car, fumbling together and struggling for silence in the midst of pleasure. Nick Harmer’s deep, pulsing bassline is an unsteady heartbeat of unprecedented, youthful excitement. Cool Seattle air swirls through green valleys and snow-tipped mountains in some sort of Pacific Northwest playland of puppy lust, asking us to recall the beauty of having sex in a car.

11. On your machine I slur a plea for you to come home.

“A Lack of Color” recalls a time when answering machines still mattered. Low, deep guitar chords introduce a man slumped over a table. They are the sound of his blood pulsing with whiskey, and of him sobbing into his grey cordless telephone, following the ebb and flow of the liquor against his burning lips. It was, as cliché would have it, too little too late. One too many missed birthdays, one too many nights stumbling in without a phone call, one too many one-too-manys. She’s gone, and what hurts him most is that it’s rightfully so. He should have given her a reason to stay.


Elyssa Goodman is a writer and photographer based in Manhattan. Her work has been published in New York, Glamour, Time Out New York, The New Yorker, Paper, Bitch, and many others. She is also the blogger behind Miss Manhattan, where she writes about her experiences living in and loving New York, and is the hostess of the Miss Manhattan Non-Fiction Reading Series. She tweets at @MissManhattanNY. More from this author →