Surprise was put on hold last night at the Bumbershoot Mainstage. In its place was anticipation for a set in which Death Cab for Cutie would fill Key Arena with songs from its decade old full-length Transatlanticism. The band was scheduled to play the album top-to-bottom to help celebrate the 15th Anniversary of Barsuk Records, the label that released that album—and every one before it—and then watched as the Seattle group tapped a mainstream audience of heavy-hearted teens and twenty-somethings and moved on to a major label for 2005’s Plans.
It was that album and the two that have since followed that likely earned the band adoration from much of the crowd at the arena, teenagers who were in kindergarten contemplating wooden blocks when Ben Gibbard was refining the public contemplation of heartbreak, self-loathing and resignation found on Transatlanticism.
Still, he bandmembers strode out to full-throated cheers from all in the packed crowd. A giant reproduction of the Transatlanticism album cover was lit behind them, but the band's modest gear was dwarfed by the enormous platform. It felt as if this was still that little indie rock band playing small clubs suddenly thrust into a whole new environment. With little fanfare, the band began, the ricocheting drums of “The New Year” forcefully announcing the beginning of something; ten years ago, before this album would be vaulted into the mainstream through national television and radio, what followed was in question. Here, as I’ve said, it was a foregone conclusion.
Next was “Lightness,” a song that lives up to its title and, as such, does not lend itself to a giant room. The tempo felt sluggish and the song constantly threatened to dissolve, held up only by Gibbard’s high and bittersweet “oh-oh-oh”s. Nick Harmer’s bassline reverberated uncomfortably in the rafters, creating a menacing rumble that undermined the song’s resigned melancholy. The band recovered with a steady and delicate “Title and Registration,” the song that serves as a preamble to the album’s transcendental core, or, as Gibbard sings, a “brief rest where disappointment and regret collide.” “Expo 86” followed, its frustration palpable through the growling guitar slashes.
“The Sound of Settling” was next and for those who knew the album, highly anticipated; this was arguably Death Cab’s first real pop song, and it is nearly perfect in its balance of a musical high with a lyrical low. “Ba-ba!" Gibbard sings as the song bounces. "This is the sound of settling!” The crowd was ready, or at least I was ready, to collectively relate to that resignation. But then something happened; the song’s intricate bassline went off the rails. Either because the instrument was out of tune or suffering the reverberations of the room, the song flailed wildly.
That opportunity was mostly missed, but there was more on the horizon as the band moved on to the three-song set of “Tiny Vessels,” “Transatlanticism” and “Passenger Seat.” That trio of songs is an emotional journey, a powerful (if unintentional) rejoinder to the free-love claim espoused by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young 30 years earlier. In Death Cab’s world, if you can’t be with the one you love, it’s not alright. And so the band takes us from the frustration of false love, to the longing for real love to the comfort of realized love. This is the core of Transatlanticism and the band played it expertly on stage. Yet, some Bumbershooters missed the tender resolution of “Passenger Seat,” having filtered out after singing along with the title track's emphatic outro, their skin perhaps still covered in goose pumps from the six-note guitar lead played by Chris Walla.
All that tension released, the band had some fun. A drum kit was constructed by the stage hands as the band played “We Looked Like Giants.” The song closed with Gibbard setting his guitar down and sitting at the kit for an intense drum duo with Jason McGerr that succeeded in transforming the song’s contemplative instrumental into a raucous arena rock out. As he did throughout the set, Gibbard looked like he was having a ball. Finishing the drum-off—during which the frontman employed high hat liberally—Gibbard stood up and threw his sticks into the crowd. Final track, “A Lack of Color,” was played straight, a deeply sad song built around a simple acoustic guitar. It made for a strange final song of a set, exposing one of the many flaws of the “entire-album” approach.
There is a reason Death Cab has never before played one of its albums from top to bottom. The simple fact is, an album is not a performance. The experience a listener needs from the songs in his or her headphones is different than what he or she needs in an arena crowded with fellow fans. Transatlanticism, despite its cathartic highs and its sing-alongs, works better, as an album, away from the crowds, in the bedroom, or in the car on a long drive down a dark lonely road.
Fortunately Death Cab knows what its fans need. As the final strains of the “A Lack of Color” filtered out of the room, Gibbard took to the mic. “And that concludes part one of our programming,” he said to the still-packed crowd. And with that Harmer thumped out the arena-friendly bassline to “I Will Possess Your Heart” from 2008’s Narrow Stairs. The crowd went wild.
What followed was another half-hour of Death Cab where the band pushed all the right buttons. Through a second set and an encore, the band played favorites from early on, including “Photobooth,” “405,” and “A Movie Script Ending.” And they played the late-era hits, including “Crooked Teeth” and “Soul Meets Body.”
This was a set dictated not by a track list established ten year’s prior, but by the expertise developed since. No one knew what was going to come next and it was better that way. It just was.