Any which way you slice it, Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard has had a great year. His elektro-pop side-project, The Postal Service (a collaboration with Dntel's Jimmy Tamborello), quickly evolved from a tossed-off time-killer into a full-blown phenomenon, complete with a string of sold-out shows and adoration from fans and critics alike. A pair of Postal Service singles and a solo acoustic split with American Analog Set's Andrew Kenny continued the Gibbardian assault, but could have never prepared us for what was to come.
Headstrong, heartbroken and faintly despondent, Transatlanticism is filled with ruminations about how distance changes the face of relationships, and, conversely, how relationships change the bearing of distance. If The Photo Album mollified fans, albeit jubilantly, after the wide-eyed breakthrough that was We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, this is the record that fulfills the potential of songs like "Movie Script Ending" and "Company Calls" -- forty minutes of opaque pop, rife with maudlin dynamics, swoon-worthy lyrics and plate-glass guitar flourishes. Call it the exclamation point on Gibbard's stratospheric year.
DCFC have absorbed a multitude of influences (from synth pop to art-rock and everything in-between) during their hiatus, but such digressions have only served to make their pop confections catchier. The sweeping dynamic thrust of "Expo '86" is a new weapon in the DCFC arsenal: walls of superfuzzed guitars crash over Gibbard's head as he wryly intones, "They're all basically the same, so I don't ask names anymore." Whether he's speaking of ex-lovers or faceless indie rock bands is anyone's guess. The title track's eight-minute maelstrom is equaled only by the lovelorn prettiness of "The New Year" and the flirty "ba ba"s of crystalline pop gem "The Sound of Settling". The lingering Tamborello influence is most notable on "Lightness", a swooning ode to longing garlanded with tinny calculator breaks and lithium-chilled blips.
While the majority of attention is paid to Gibbard and his microcosmic songwriting genius, Transatlanticism's real success hinges upon Chris Walla's immaculate production. He's the lynchpin of the DCFC universe, a gifted sonic architect whose relentless quest for aural perfection is well-matched with Gibbard's gift for transforming life's banal trivialities into remarkable slow-motion portraits, his gilded hand sculpting the exulted sail of "Expo '86" and "Death of an Exterior Decorator".
There's nothing to suggest that Gibbard isn't utterly sincere when he says "everybody put your best suit or dress on, let's pretend we are wealthy just this once" -- but if their career continues to progress at this clip, he and his bandmates won't be pretending much longer.