Wednesday, September 08, 2004

I Could Travel Just by Folding a Map

I know I should probably be writing about my continuing thoughts on Medulla* or how I've recently fallen in love with Ted Leo~ or how I was mildly disappointed by We Don't Live Here Anymore^. But . . . all I really want to talk about right now is how amazing Transatlanticism is.

I know, I know, I'm a little late pulling my chair up to the Death Cab for Cutie table. And I'm sure a zillion fans who've loved them since waaay back when will be more than happy to get on my case about how much better and more sonically interesting their early stuff is (I burned a copy of Giddy's We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, so just hold yer horses; I'll get around to listening to it eventually). However, I've been listening to Transatlanticism intermittently at least since early July, and it's still surprising me with new corners to get lost in and new connections to make in order to climb back out of the confusion.

First, let's talk about the fact that the album makes a complete loop on itself. Is this widely acknowledged by the fans? Have other albums by other artists done this before and I've just never known about it? Regardless, Chris Walla, you're a genius. The feedbacky hum that ends "A Lack of Color" is the exact same noise that begins "The New Year," so if your CD player automatically replays the disk from the beginning once it reaches the final track, there's no interruption. It makes a seamless transition. And I don't think it's just a clever parlor trick. It's like an aural literalization of the lyric, "I wish the world was flat like the old days/then I could travel just by folding a map." Which makes complete sense, since that lyric (and the lines that follow it: "no more airplanes or speed-trains or freeways/there'd be no distance that could hold us back") is the album's Rosetta stone.

It took my now-regular weekend road trips out to Indiana for me to realize that Transatlanticism is all about distance, using transportation symbolism as that theme's (pardon the pun) vehicle. When you're alone in your car, doing 80 miles an hour on Route 30 early on a misty Sunday morning, phrases like "in the back of my grey sub-compact" and "from the passenger seat as you are driving me home" tend to lodge themselves in your brain. The album itself almost seems like it wants to fight how much it talks about transportation; aside from the glorious "Title and Registration," there are no direct references to travel in the first half of the album. Then, you get a hint in "Tiny Vessels" and "Transatlanticism" (the former's vacation in Silver Lake and the double meaning of the vessels of the title, the latter's overjoyed people who took to their boats), which eventually leads into the deluge of the final four songs. At which point, of course, you get kicked back to the beginning of the album again. The rush of imagery is both like acceleration and like the kind of verbal diarrhea that comes from repressing an emotion or preoccupation too long--at a certain point, you just can't stop yourself from talking about it and you unwittingly start to reveal the complex, interlocking infrastructure holding your neuroses together. Which is maybe why that image of folding a map is so potent for me: what at first seems like a magic trick that will bring you closer to your heart's desire actually reveals itself as a Mobius strip, keeping you locked in a cycle of obsessive memory.

But what prevents all this from feeling self-serving or self-pitying is the sweeping, epic romance of the thing. Ben Gibbard keening "I need you so much closer" is quite literally the heart of the album. Nestled near the end of track seven (of eleven), it's both the voice of the child in us who never really grows up, murmuring a repeated phrase to lull himself to sleep, and the voice of the frantic lover, chanting a sweaty, desperate prayer against the darkening night. The question then becomes, would it have been better for that prayer to go unanswered?

The fragile perfection of "Passenger Seat," the very next track, starts off in a moment of sublime, peaceful happiness, his wish granted. Then, inexplicably, he starts pondering a crash ("do they collide?"), perhaps suddenly realizing that sometimes far apart is close enough and that sometimes celestial bodies would do best to keep their distance in the interest of avoiding a violent, fiery demise at each other's hands. And yet that dark little cloud in the perfectly clear sky of that moment doesn't affect his capacity for grand gestures of chivalry: "when you feel embarrassed, then I'll be your pride/when you need directions, then I'll be the guide" (note, again, here the map/travel image). But that relationship's ultimate inability to be sustained gives way, not to a spectacular flame-out, but to claustrophobia: the smothered romance of "Death of an Interior Decorator" and the cramped and airless quarters of "We Looked Like Giants," where the desire is intoxicating but choked with doom.

The sound of waves crashing on the beach at the beginning of "A Lack of Color" feels expansive here, and the sweet harmonies lacing the lines "I should have given you a reason to stay" are far more wistful than regretful. The repetition here reminds us of the repetition of "I need you so much closer," this time signaling sorrow, but also resignation, if not necessarily acceptance. After all, the whole drama gets played out again when the album restarts itself.

I am, obviously, just completely entranced with how breathlessly, intricately beautiful this album is. I think it’s telling that the last CD I listened to and found essential to do a close reading on in this manner was Bjork’s Vespertine. And why haven’t the critics been up to the task? Pitchfork’s is one of their retarded concept reviews. Rolling Stone’s is pleasant enough, but not exactly in the proper amount of awe. Typically, The Onion's review is perhaps the only one I've read that agrees with me and is, therefore, right. (Is this sarcasm? I dunno; is it?)

Go, go listen to this album now.

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