Tuesday, November 03, 2009
#16 Album of the Decade- Death Cab for Cutie- Transatlanticism
Death Cab for Cutie- "Title and Registration"
#40 Song of the Decade- Death Cab for Cutie- "Transatlanticism"
I work at a Catholic school whose religion department employs several dudes who dropped out of the seminary. Apparently, this is more common than I ever knew. Men devote their lives to modest, poor, celibate lives serving the Lord until they meet a woman who shows them that teaching high school religion is a compromise they can live with. They always word this decision the same way though: "God brought X into my life to show me that He has a different plan for me. I can serve Him just as well by being a good Christian husband and father." It's impossible that their love for a woman could be an obstacle to God's true plan, a temptation and impediment to the goal toward which they're still supposed to be striving. They assume that they're supposed to give into it. It's God's new will.
Love and Christianity actually have a lot in common. You know those crackpots on Facebook who list their religion as "love"? They believe that the world would be a better place if everyone loved everyone else, just as Christians sometimes believe that the world would be a better place if everyone else were Christian. Love makes everything possible. Everyone would be better off with a little TLC. But honestly, TLC can't change the world; TLC doesn't even advocate the chasing of waterfalls.
Look, I'm not making fun of either of these groups. It's human nature to believe that love is a freeing blessing instead of an obstacle. But sometimes it is. We've all known people who have made terrible decisions and ruined their lives for love, who have ignored time, distance, and good-old-fashioned reasoning for a fleeting, pie-eyed ideal of amore. Looking at love as an irresistibly destructive force isn't natural. But Death Cab for Cutie's Transatlanticism is about this exact notion, and that's what makes it so unique.
Of course, I realize there are parts of the record that are mawkish--"emo" for those who write love as their religion on Facebook. When Ben Gibbard's songwriting isn't being melodramatic, it's being too-clever-for-its-own-good. Sometimes, however, a work of art comes along poised for maximum personal impact, and Transatlanticism arrived at just the right time for me to consume it. I screamed along with this album headed east on a road no one ever heads east on, one time when love became too destructive in my own hands. I would give you more details, but I don't want this to become that type of blog.
Death Cab for Cutie has confessional lyrics like, "I should have given you a reason to stay...this is fact not fiction/For the first time in years." Luckily, they don't care that they're that type of band. In fact, this album, obsessed over love that was and could have been, made them a pretty girly band. Usually, that designation is handed to bands that are cloying and cute. This album is something else entirely.
I never said they were immune to photographic cliches.
Sydney Pollack once said that filmmakers "can show people falling in love for an hour or can show people breaking up for an hour, but you can only show people in love for ten minutes." That's exactly what Gibbard's lyrics do: chronicle the spaces bookending love. They suggest love as a fulfilling salvation, but it's always "a love that could have been if I'd only thought of something charming to say." There are details that make it seem real, ("With every Thursday I'd brave those mountain passes/And you'd skip your early classes/And we'd learn how our bodies worked") but they're always in the past tense. The lyrics and the sometimes martial, assiduous rhythm section lend an elusive quality to the album that is always present, no matter what tempo the band is working in.
Across the album, there's a motif of tangible distance representing the emotional distance of lost love. The opener, backed by chords as major and windmilled as Chris Walla's lead guitar gets, laments: "I wish the world was flat like the old days/Then I could travel just by folding a map/No more airplanes or speed trains or freeways/There'd be no distance that could hold us back." But the nearly eight-minute centerpiece of the album, the title track, takes that wish fulfillment one step further.
Structured around searching piano chords, "Transatlanticism" begins as a pity party for that well-worn distance territory. It continues with slides and more resolved guitar, as if taking tentative steps, and it builds with resolve until the understated refrain of "I need you so much closer" takes the song into a trot. By the halfway point, the song has transitioned into a gallop, and by the time the rest of the band joins in with a harmonic "so come on," the distance does indeed "feel quite temporary."
The usually astute Stephen Thomas Erlweine once called this marathon "long for length's sake," and he was more correct than he realized. Often used as the closer to live shows, the song is as much of a solution as Gibbard can find to the problem of an uneasy memory of love. The distance is the song itself, and listening and understanding is its bridge. Like the seminary dropouts, we have to accept a new path for ourselves, and "Transatlanticism" is Gibbard's way of assessing that.
Two albums removed from Transatlanticism, Death Cab for Cutie has become something like the new R.E.M.: stalwart, literate, rainy day adult contempo for all the thirtysomethings who let people assume they're twentysomethings. They can open for Springsteen and get referenced on teen soap operas. "I Will Follow You into the Dark" off Plans is practically a standard by now. It would seem as if they're conquering the world as we speak.
Recently, however, news came out that Gibbard has become engaged to resident manic pixie dream girl Zooey Deschanel. (Apparently, my hair needs to be set further on the Gram Parsons side of the dial for her to take notice.) For a guy who used to capitalize on the futility of a divergent love, this might be a challenge. Instead of singing, "It seems by the time that I have figured what it's worth/The squeaking of our skin against the steel has gotten worse," he might have to switch to, "My girl has great skin and a naturally colorful complexion/She also has a really cute laugh." She might be the death of one of our great songwriters.
But what can I say? Love can be destructive.