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Initially Beguiling, Ultimately Fulfilling
on 30 March 2007
Approaching an album like 'Transatlanticism' subjectively is difficult. Given the iconically cult nature, not only of the album, but also of the band themselves, it is impossible to approach this record without an exciting tingle of anticipation. Having grown to appreciate the bittersweet subtleties of their most recent album 'Plans', I was preparing for an experience that delivered such melancholic beauty, but in a more emotively powerful and ungoverned manner.
With such a high level of anticipation, it was almost inevitable that my first reaction would be one of vague disappointment. Their were occassional highlights such as the exlosive thundering of opening track 'New Year'. Indeed the opening lyrics were very promising as they declared "So this is the New Year/And I don't feel any different". This fitted in with my own personal belief about the falseness of New Year as a time of seemingly instant change. Similarly the florescent bubbling of 'Sound of Settling', and its irreverent chorus of "Bah bah/This is the sound of settling/Bah bah, bah bah" made a positive impression upon my mind. But the rest of the album just seemed to slide by. Very few tracks distinguished themselves and towards the end I began to fear that 'Transatlanticism's' reputation was merely an insubstantial smokescreen.
That was, however, until I reached the final track 'A Lack of Colour'. Anyone with a penchant for the lonesome combination of a soulful singer and his acoustic guitar cannot fail to be struck by the heartfelt simplicity of this song. While it gradually introduces dual vocals and a light bean-shaker beat, there is still the sense that frontman Ben Gibbard has complete seclusion. Indeed the occasional wave sound effects make it seem as if he is marooned on a desert island somewhere. The metaphorical nature of this presentation is obvious, both from the song's title, and its lyrics. Portraying a guy whoose life has become colourless without love, Gibbard realises that "All the girls in every girly magazine/Can't make me feel/Any less alone". Through lack of affection, Gibbard's loneliness is now irretrievable, as he admits "But I know it's too late/And I should have given you a reason to stay". The intelligent simplicity of such lyrical combinations are a joy to hear, and indeed mark Death Cab apart from so many other indie bands of their ilk.
Indeed it is this slow burning, lyrically driven, vulnerably emotive kind of track that reawakens one's realisation about the true musical nature of Death Cab for Cutie. As with previously mentioned tracks 'New Year' and 'Sound of Settling'(both released as singles) the band are perfectly capable of creating powerful, distinctive and catchy tracks. However their true quality lies in their more subtle and less imposing songs. After a short time tracks like 'Lightness', 'Tiny Vessels' and 'Passenger Seat' begin to reveal their full beauty, seeming to slide softly into one's consciousness. The latter does so through the use of soft piano touches accompanied with a barely perceptible, swirling sound effect and Gibbard's naturally innocent vocal style.
From this point on a waterfall effect occurs, as songs begin to tumble into one's mind, realising their full potential in the process. Tracks such as 'Expo 86' and 'We Looked Like Giants' now have a forceible impact seemingly missing on the inital listen through. The former is vaguely reminiscent of Jeff Buckley's 'So Real', with its quirky and chaotic translation from catchy melody to thumping chorus, and back again. In 'We Looked Like Giants' the rhythm section of newly employed drummer Jason McGerr and long-time bassist Nicholas Harmer really pulsates through. With rough drum patterns and a humming bass, this song finally delivers some of the rawness that I had initially anticipated. By this point it became difficult to find a track that I couldn't enthuse over, with every one displaying both lyrically and musically a talent which I had now become fully aware of.
There are many albums I have initally found disappointing. Some have had to hold my interest with one or two songs in order to let me develop a liking for them. In many cases this developement has occured, and the album has become important to me. Indeed I would suggest that this is quite a universal principle. The encounter of something new and different is often treated with caution. Given enough listens most albums will gradually become acceptable, if not fairly valuable to the majority of listeners. However, the manner in which 'Transatlanticism' drags itself from largely uninspiring to near perfection is nothing short of miraculous. Its cult reputation is thoroughly deserved and its transformation from the passable to the classic is a journey that every true music fan should take.