Death Cab for Cutie, “Transatlanticism”

for Constance Turner

I have no idea what I was doing when I wrote on this 9 years ago. Well, that’s not entirely true — I have some clue. I looked then for peculiar language, wherever I might find it, and put all my effort into deciphering that language, as if there were a hidden truth which empowered its finder. I still do that, and I guess that’s why I’m prone to writing essays which are absolute messes. They’re all words about words, spiraling into galaxies of their own. They make no sense to any other observer, not even a future me, but they make perfect sense to me at that moment.

I can’t help but feel that this is a peculiar childhood state I’m reliving. Death Cab, for their part, has grown up. The longing of this song — I need you so much closer — now informs a number of hard thoughts about love and loss. You can see this partially in “Black Sun” and “No Room In Frame;” neediness has been replaced by wondering how beauty betrays, how we can love without hurting each other.

So what was I thinking 9 years ago? I thought a sly counterfactual lurked beneath the lyrics: What if someone loved enough that the world could flood? To be sure, that’s not terribly complimentary to the singer. It marks him as someone with a rather exaggerated notion of love, self, and pain. The Atlantic was born today and I’ll tell you how — he’ll tell you how he saw the birth of an entire ocean. That ocean, just a bit short of the Biblical flood: the clouds above opened up and let it out, and it took indented, dry land, filled every hole, making islands in the most remote, random spots. That’s where his feelings stand:

Transatlanticism
Death Cab for Cutie 

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)

His love/pain floods the world; he’s cut off from his beloved by miles upon miles of water. I don’t remember feeling crushed about love then, but like everyone else, I engage in a lot of projection. I used the word “pathetic” a bunch of times in the old commentary, even though “Transatlanticism” is on its surface a song about distance. You can plausibly hear it as lovers simply residing far from each other, oceans being the same as realizing how much distance hurts:

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

A few details stuck out to me then, and they stick out now. The emphasis in the lyrics is on how he feels, on how he perceives himself feeling. He calls the ocean a moat, he moans about not hearing his footsteps, he’s unwilling to fight the distance. He says nothing about how his lover might feel, or what he would like to do for his lover. Add those to perhaps the most curious detail: Most people were overjoyed; they took to their boats. Wait, what? The world just flooded. Are they mad?

I arrived at the conclusion that “Transatlanticism” might not be about two people in love. It could be about someone with a crush, getting no attention paid to him, realizing that the world is going on without him. Everyone else is happy, he’s alone, and he’d like to make some kind of movement. Maybe he’s already done stupid things to get his beloved’s attention, maybe he’s already made a move. The realization is that he can’t just make someone else fall in love because he thinks he’s in love. I suspected the lyrics hide a person that’s growing. Yeah, he’s pleading, but that pleading comes to an end, and doesn’t involve any overly romantic notion of thinking he can change someone’s mind through his feelings, thoughts, and actions.

That’s what I thought then, and I don’t see a need to change it 9 years later. It still feels strange to talk about, though. It feels strange to remember I was sensitive to this. Getting love started is so ridiculously complicated. You’ve got to be passionate and at the same time ready for rejection, able to embrace restraint. You’ve got to be willing to be pathetic while simultaneously self-conscious. Listening to “Transatlanticism,” I hear it move from quiet and cloying to more hopeful and full. It stays tender throughout. There’s something I was supposed to learn 9 years ago, but I don’t think I’ve got it yet.

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