"So this is the New Year and I don't feel any different," sings Ben Gibbard on Death Cab for Cutie's fourth album, Transatlanticism. It's probably for the best; if he ever lost his personal crises, Cutie's songs would have to be instrumental. All of Gibbard's usual favorites show up once again on Transatlanticism -- insecurity over the future, moping over lost loves, the agony of long-distance relationships and an inexplicable fixation on the metaphoric potential of cars (for example: "Title and Registration," "Passenger Seat"). Disappointingly, the self-deprecating humor and narrative detail of Gibbard's fizzy electro-pop side project, the Postal Service, have vanished as quickly as they appeared. Still, the lonely, jangly "A Lack of Color" and the wry "Death of an Interior Decorator" (about an uptight housewife's suicide) are as compelling as sad American indie pop (read: emo) gets these days.
What keeps Transatlanticism from being merely mopey is the production of Cutie's guitarist Chris Walla. Walla helmed the Stratford 4's Love & Distortion, a piece of shoegazer porn that successfully channels the spirit of '91, and he brings the same love for detailed soundscapes to Cutie's work. The more upbeat pop songs of their last LP, The Photo Album, are mostly gone, replaced by lush ballads buoyed by synthesizer buzzes, pianos and arena-ready power chords. Transatlanticism's high-water mark is the title track, an eight-minute epic that gradually swells up from a morose silence, finally ending with an urgent choir and one of Gibbard's best vocal performances yet, as he finds every possible nuance in the mantra "I need you closer to me." The song is a clear successor to the 2001 single "Stability" -- and a drastic improvement, as well. These may be the same pictures as The Photo Album, but they've been placed in beautiful new frames.