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Death Cab for Cutie, ‘Transatlanticism’ (Barsuk)

It’s possible–and profitable–to build a career on being young and hopeless. But comb your faux-hawk down, flip it, and reverse it: Death Cab for Cutie cutie Ben Gibbard is the poet laureate of the young and hopeful. On three previous DCFC records–and on his masterful detour into indie electro, the Postal Service’s Give Up–Gibbard has made a compelling case for yearning. Still, his Seattle quartet have never made the truly great album that their best songs promised. Until now.

Distance is the central theme on Transatlanticism: “I wish the world was flat like the old days / And I could travel just by folding the map,” Gibbard sings in his spotless tenor on the album’s opening track, “The New Year.” Luckily, he’s got guitarist/producer Chris Walla in his band, and Walla doesn’t just fold the map, he crumples, shreds, and trashes it, taking this band places they’ve never been. The album is littered with dissonant clatter and swoony echoes. “Lightness” follows a wobbly bass line all the way up a torn dress, “Title and Registration” grooves on glitchy percussion, and on the lush “Passenger Seat,” Gibbard apes Nick Drake while Walla drives the Volkswagen straight into the moon.

Despite Gibbard’s evident heartache, Transatlanticismis a breakup album that refuses to break down, full of striking, tactile imagery: knickknacks left in the glove compartment, a frayed thread, dyed-brown hair. The finest moment is the eight-minute title track: a staggering piano epic, Coldplay for the warm-blooded. After musing about islands and oceans, Gibbard settles for the simple refrain “I need you so much closer.” A direct and beautiful statement–and that goes double for the album.