Prior to 2003, Death Cab for Cutie were merely one more articulate bunch of emo kids. One glimpse of their alabaster pigmentation told the story: Sensitive, brokenhearted, anxious, awkward and only occasionally compelling. Disappointments? Abandonment issues? Frontman Ben Gibbard had plenty of both. Learning how to make these gripes worth listening to? Well, that was a work in progress
Certainly emboldened by his Postal Service side project, which allowed him to plunge fearlessly into keyboards, drum machines, and similar un-rock distractions, Gibbard finally seems to have removed the horse blinders from his songwriting. Death Cab for Cutie's straightforward sound has developed, expanded, and been thoroughly mucked with.
And as the music broadens its palette, gaining in sophistication and shading, so too does Gibbard's point of view come into sharper focus. Earlier records like The Photo Album suggested a smart, self-depreciating writer with a knack for the telling anecdote. Here, the songs dovetail between indelible detail and poetic metaphor. Coyness and solipsism are the usual defense mechanisms for society's nice guys. But even when he's acknowledging his romantic hang-ups, Gibbard allows a tough, clear-eyed perspective to dominate his musings. In "Title and Registration," a rainy-night pullover by the cops transforms into a stinging reminder of a lost love. Equally unsentimental, "Expo '86" traces the conundrum of lovers-to-friends disillusionment with detached inevitability.
These lyrical advancements wouldn't be half as gripping without the band's shattering of their power chord predictability. "Tiny Vessels" sustains an air of subdued guitar melancholy while Gibbard recalls a doomed fling. As the song segues into the long-distance-relationship allegory that is the exquisite title track, Transatlanticism feels like a happy marriage of ambition and execution.
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With an album like Transatlanticism under their belts -- moody, insightful, emotionally precise, tough but heartfelt -- Death Cab For Cutie's finally shooting for the big time, in their own endearing way, of course.