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Not Fade Away: 10 Years Later, How Death Cab For Cutie Broke Through with ‘Transatlanticism’

Or rather, Stop Giving 'The O.C.' Credit For Breaking Death Cab
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Courtney E. Smith
Courtney E. Smith Courtney is the pop producer for Radio.com and the...
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(Courtesy of Barsuk Records)

(Courtesy of Barsuk Records)

In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on Death Cab for Cutie’s breakthrough albumTransatlanticism,” which turned 10 earlier this month and sees a reissue today (October 29).

I listened to Transatlanticism for the first time just before reaching cruising altitude on a flight from New York City to Seattle in the spring of 2003, about five months before the album’s release. I was heading to the Emerald City on behalf of MTV to take meetings with several indie record labels: Sub Pop, Tooth & Nail and Death Cab’s own, Barsuk Records. I was a Coordinator of Label Relations who worked largely in the digital space, but I’d lately been put in the mix with the company’s latest acquisition: the College Music Network, which would be rebranded as mtvU. This gave me an entirely new, 24-hour music network desperate for things to play. It was already clear with the successes Bright Eyes, The Shins and The Decemberists were seeing that something was taking hold within the mainstream. I was hot to push my indie-rock-loving agenda on the channel, and Death Cab for Cutie were high on my hit list of bands. Transatlanticism was the jumping-off point. But, 10 years later, a number of tributes to the album seem to misremember its success.

A lot of people write about Transatlanticism in the framework of the popular primetime soap The O.C., though that narrative does a disservice to the creative success that the band achieved with the album. It’s like congratulating Nike for their hard work on Michael Jordan’s legacy. The Fox series did an excellent job of upping awareness of the band’s existence in the mainstream, and it was happily well-timed to the release of their greatest artistic achievement to date. But had that particular piece of publicity not come about, Transatlanticism would have still been the band’s breakout album.

(Autumn de Wilde for Barsuk Records)

(Autumn de Wilde for Barsuk Records)

To further drive home the point, factor in these key dates: Transatlanticism was released October 7, 2003. The O.C. premiered August 5, 2003. The group had its first synch on the show’s September 16th episode with “A Movie Script Ending,” from 2001’s The Photo Album, though O.C. protagonist Seth Cohen name-checked the band earlier than that. Considering the three-to-five-month lead time required by print magazines, I’d say Transatlanticism didn’t earn coverage in Rolling Stone, Spin, Uncut, Alternative Press and Blender based on their placement in the show. The show did, however, give more populist outlets like Entertainment Weekly and MTV News — where I knew members of the staff who were fans — license to mention Death Cab in recaps and the eventual think-pieces about how a teen drama was making the world a musically better place. And The O.C. certainly gave me some strong ammunition in the music meetings at MTV when discussing DCFC; mass exposure of any kind was a key metric to consideration for even the smallest of rotations on the newest of video channels.

Another, less-discussed thing happened in 2003 to help raise Death Cab’s profile: the release of the Postal Service album, Give Up, in February, nine months before Transatlanticism. It was supposed to be frontman Ben Gibbard’s little electro-pop side project, but soon it had moved 100,000 copies, then 500,000 (!!). Now it’s Sub Pop’s second-best-selling album ever (after Nirvana’s Bleach) with a million copies sold, while Transatlanticism still hasn’t. The truly organic success was so remarkable that Billboard did an article on the album spending four weeks on the top of their Electronic Albums chart with what they characterized as “scant radio, club or video exposure and minimal touring (no more than 30 live shows).” People were straight up just buying it, in droves, and propelling it to a No. 1 charting.

To put this into context, in 2003 Bright Eyes and The Shins were among the first of a new breed of indie band to sell over 100,000 albums, a feat that was considered all but impossible in the music industry by bands on indie labels who got minimal support from mainstream outlets. It was commonly accepted that you had to be the Flaming Lips or Built To Spill and sign that major label deal to make the jump from sales around 30,000 to breaking the 100,00 barrier. People in the music industry’s heads were exploding trying to figure this success story out (spoiler alert: it was music blogs and file sharing as exposure).

Every story that was written about the Postal Service — and there were many — billed Gibbard as the Death Cab For Cutie frontman. The set-up was classic: people who had never heard of, let alone listened to, Death Cab had come to know Gibbard’s lyrical style and voice through Give Up. The world was primed for a new album from this voice, and Transatlanticism essentially served as the follow-up. It was the kind of publicity you couldn’t pay for, and a little more credible than the music gospel according to TV’s teenaged music geek, Seth Cohen.

(Andrew Paynter for Barsuk Records)

Death Cab circa ‘Transatlanticism’ (Andrew Paynter for Barsuk Records)

At the end of the day, that’s just the hype. It’s separate from the substance: the creative rolling of the dice that was at the core of the album. Transatlanticism was a calling card to the world from DCFC that said, “Hey, we’re going to really try.” No more bedroom four-tracking or timid vocals. Not even just a series of songs, this was a concept album about long-distance love. Everything about it, from Chris Walla’s production to the sweeping scope of the music to the long-distance love theme weaved throughout, was screaming out that they wanted to do more, to be more. That’s a gamble. DCFC got a few smacks in the press for letting their ambition show on Transatlanticism. Early DCFC supporters Pitchfork didn’t like it, as reflected in a snarky review that includes references to the Olive Garden and the phrase, “Pure arena rock. Direct and pandering.” While those were both pretty big exaggerations, in the world of indie rock in 2003 it was still a sin to try and move beyond your station without a letter of reference and a pass from the powers that be. The band was becoming more populist in general, but it wasn’t exactly a musical 180. Anyone who wouldn’t call early “hit” “A Movie Script Ending” a pop song is someone who probably shouldn’t be talking about music.

So back to that plane ride. I listened to Transatlanticism for six hours straight, trying to memorize every line. I instantly loved “Title and Registration” and instantly hated “Tiny Vessels” and got into a heated discussion about the merits of the latter song with Barsuk head Josh Rosenfeld because we were a decade younger then and these sorts of discussions about music — where you try to bring someone around to your point of view — were passionate things instead of tiresome ones. Then there was the album’s title track. To call it a masterwork is not overstating it. It is now and forever will be the definitive Death Cab for Cutie song. The essence of that Death Cab sound, but also the very best of it.

With the guaranteed support of MTV behind them, the band planned to actually make music videos for the album — which was another major shift for them. Their only previous effort had been for “A Movie Script Ending,” which got, as I recall, a total of two spins on MTV2’s Subterranean. This rendered even the most low-budget efforts, in the record label’s eyes, not worth their money. The DCFC guys weren’t big fans of being in videos, either. As I recall, they were pretty convinced they were all not particularly good-looking and so would be better heard than seen. Hence, the band elected to film a second video that did not include the band whatsoever for Transatlanticism‘s lead single, “The New Year.” Nary a live performance B-story to be found.

The band followed that with a meh video for “The Sound of Settling,” which likely would have been the end of their video efforts for Transatlanticism had they not signed a deal with Atlantic Records, who decided to helped them work “Title and Registration” as a single. They made what I still think is one of their finest music videos with director Patrick Daughters, who was absolute hot s*** in indie rock videos at that moment.

Even before the shift to Atlantic Records, this was a disruptive time for the band. You’ve got all the ancillary stuff: jealousies and uncomfortableness related to the extremely warm reception for the Postal Service; kicking their second drummer out and adding in Jason McGerr, whose first album with the group would be Transatlanticism; and a million never-ending questions in every interview about The O.C. 

It was an interesting evolution to watch. I sat in on every interview the band did at MTV between 2003-2008, across three album cycles. The frustration at fielding O.C. and Postal Service questions melded into frustration at having to justify singing to a major label for Plans. I’m still convinced everyone simply wanted them to admit, “We’re the modern day R.E.M., shifting from I.R.S. to Warner Bros. You know the story turns out just fine!” The shift that happened upon the release of 2008’s Narrow Stairs was clear: this was a group of guys who’d done enough interviews to be media trained, finally able to let the same old questions roll off their backs.

Now, 10 years later, they’re the band who are constantly asked, even if not to their faces, if they’ll ever be able to make an album as good as Transatlanticism again.

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