This is Songs That Saved My Life. Every Wednesday and Friday, I'll be sharing real-life stories about those rare, glorious moments when music hits us in the ears, the heart, the gut and the soul... when a three-minute pop song, a sprawling guitar solo, or a passionate operetta manages to encapsulate all of the pain, joy, longing, fear, loss, and ambition in our lives.
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Death Cab For Cutie "Transatlanticism" Transatlanticism (2003)
It starts with that first piano chord... hovering softly over the tick and grind of a massive machine, whirring and moving just beneath the surface. "The Atlantic was born today," Ben Gibbard, shifting his usual frame of reference from the intensely personal to the entire world at large, "The sky above opened up and let it out." I couldn't see the ocean from my college dorm room window... well, not the one Ben described, anyway. I saw a dense urban sprawl of rooftops and windows... skyscrapers and distant clouds, taxicabs and buses... people of all sorts and sizes.
It was a long way from my hometown in more ways than one.
The first piece of new music I heard as an NYU freshman was "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" by The Postal Service, Ben's one-off collaboration with emo-glitch producer Jimmy Tamborello. That song was unlike anything I'd ever heard—the way the beats (clean and airy, not rough and gritty like the ones I was used to) floated around those airy, wispy keyboards still gives me the shivers every time I hear it. Wasn't long before my roommate turned me onto that voice's other project—a Seattle indie band called Death Cab For Cutie.
In the same way Manhattan was a world apart from the safe, tucked-in suburban sprawl of downriver Michigan, this music couldn't have been more different from the theatrical brutality of our local "new rock alternative" radio stations. The bands I devoured that first year of college felt softer sonically, yet bigger and bolder in their emotional and lyrical range. Gibbard especially wrote of things I understood: hopeless rides down endless highways... painfully beautiful girls in their summer clothes... the small moments when a book of matches or a cold cup of coffee reveal something indispensable about life, love, and the pursuit of make-out sessions.
New York City was where I discovered all of the things Ben wrote about in his best songs... but I didn't find any of that my first year at college. More than anything, I slept a lot... day and night. I avoided learning how to the use the subway. I ate a lot of Subway and Taco Bell. Most of all, I missed my friends—my small but vital group of companions who, throughout most of high school, felt like my sole pipeline into something you might describe as vaguely resembling a social life. I missed these five people more than anything else in world... god, how I wanted them to be so much closer.
Death Cab's "Transatlanticism" is a wistful fable about long-distance heartache ("The distance is quite simply much too far for me to row") that, during the lonely days and nights in the Fall of 2004, kept this trembling, isolated college freshman in emotional stasis. The aching yearning in Ben's "I need you so much closer" refrain felt plucked from the empty rooms in my heart, where new friends, colleagues, co-workers and ex-girlfriends would eventually take up residence. The winding sound of Chris Walla's guitar felt like signal flares, fired out into the great wide open—"Is there anybody alive out there? Could you lend this scared eighteen-year-old a hug?"
Yes, I learned to feel at home in New York... and yes, I learned how to navigate the subway system (that took a little longer)... but "Transatlanticism" still holds a special place in that overstuffed apartment building between my lungs. Living so far away from so many of my NYC friends, its words and sounds still ring beautifully and sometimes painfully true:
The rhythm of my footsteps crossing flatlands to your door have been silenced forever more...
I need you so much closer So come on, come on...
Be sure to check back this Friday, when I'll be sharing some of your stories in a special Readers Edition of Songs That Saved My Life. (If you haven't already, tell us what song saved your life right here.)