Not Fade Away: 10 Years Later, How Death Cab For Cutie Broke Through with ‘Transatlanticism’
by Courtney E. Smith
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 album “Transatlanticism,” 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.