The Meaning of Unrequited Love? On “Transatlanticism,” by Death Cab for Cutie

for Constance Turner

Transatlanticism
Death Cab for Cutie (song available here; lyrics from here)

The Atlantic was born today and I’ll tell you how
The clouds above opened up and let it out

I was standing on the surface of a perforated sphere
When the water filled every hole
And thousands upon thousands made an ocean
Making islands where no island should go
Oh, no

Most people were overjoyed; they took to their boats
I thought it less like a lake and more like a moat
The rhythm of my footsteps crossing flatlands to your door
Have been silenced forevermore
The distance is quite simply much too far for me to row
It seems farther than ever before
Oh, no

I need you so much closer (X 8)

I need you so much closer (X 4)

So come on, come on (X 4)

Comment:

Yeah. This is Death Cab. I know this commentary is completely unnecessary. Still, it was fun to think I saw something in the lyrics and write on it.

Even though this Flood sounds Biblical, it is not of Biblical proportions – the Atlantic is nowhere near the size of the Pacific. And I don’t remember people getting happy because it rained so.

The “perforated sphere” makes one think of a wiffle ball. Perforations are punctures – something is being filled, or bursting, or bleeding. Every broken heart unleashes an ocean: those “clouds” weren’t really above, just a bit higher than one would expect. Along with the ocean comes an unnatural emphasis on isolation (“making islands where no island should go”) and distance (“it seems farther than ever before”).

Something very strange is going on in this song, though. Our speaker is not being entirely honest with himself. “Most people were overjoyed” – huh? People like their own personal lake cutting them off from others? It’s more than likely we’re hearing this because everyone else must be happy, there must be a few couples getting smoochy and going out on the boats and seeming to have fun. Never mind that they’ve got their share of problems too, and never mind every other single guy getting in the boat and dutifully rowing away instead of singing this. Moreover, remember what created the “Atlantic” here: this guy going “waaaaaaaaa my heart is so broken it has flooded everything.” He’s implicitly telling us that he’s not seeing correctly, his longing is making the world seem other than what it is.

The delusions continue with “flatlands” – wait, what? Perforated spheres have holes in them. There’s some flatland, sure. There’s also these giant pits in the ground that throw you to your doom, if not make journeying so hard that you could only go out once. Maybe you did walk a pretty far distance, but notice the main difference between walking and rowing: he can’t hear the rhythm of his own footsteps, the journey “seems” longer.

The most fatal fact is that this door has never been opened for him – otherwise, this song wouldn’t have been written.

So what’s going on exactly? Why does this guy seem so pathetic?

It’s always really pathetic when you’re in love and not loved back at all. You might as well be an island unto yourself: you can only see what you want to see in the world, because not much else matters, and the funny thing is you’re not trying to be an egotist. It just has to be that way because everyone else is busy and can’t be bothered, and even if they were bothered they don’t need to hear you rant for hours. Moreover, no one can really get you the one person you want. It’s up to her to see differently.

This song ends with hope, stemming from the mere fact that the unrequited lover has to step beyond himself. This flood was less than Biblical – maybe his wish is impossible, but then again, lovers do cross oceans for each other. It happens every day. And even if this case won’t resolve that way, it will resolve, and he’s going to cross the Atlantic in a more important way.

We see this happening in the chant – the chant moves from “I need you so much closer,” an actual recognition that his love isn’t good enough alone. Before, it was him just walking or maybe trying to row. After this has been said 12 times, there’s another shift: “So come on, come on:” she has to do something, the situation he’s in is unfair.

We know, either way, that silence after this is appropriate. Either he’ll be loved or he’ll have walked away. His own personal ocean will have been crossed, and yeah, he’s better for it either way, and not because his initial loving was wrong. After all, the counterfactual here is: “What if someone loved enough that the world could Flood?”

3 Comments

  1. unrelated issue:
    “death cab for cutie” the name alone – a play on emily’s “death cab’? “I would not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me” … that sounds like taxi service to me…
    so what do you think? has no one noticed this or am i late to the conversation and completely dull and repetitive?

    so let me know

    thanks mary

  2. Enjoyed the analysis.

    I’m relatively new to DCFC myself. My sons tried to get me to listen starting several years ago, even snuck some mp3s onto my Winamp lists… in anticipation of their absence, I started listening a couple of months ago.

    I learn as I age, to listen to the younger humans among us. Thanks for a thought enjoining read.

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