New Year’s Eve is traditionally one of the worst nights of the year. The outrageous expectations of a capitalised Epic Night Out are enough to disappoint, but then there is the strike of the clock hitting midnight and those larger expectations: that this will be the year you finally get your shit together. You will join that gym, start that course, quit that job, eat more vegetables, love harder, fall less, try more, cigarettes, carbs, chocolate, chickens kept in cages. Of course, this all falls away bit by bit, as ‘never again’ becomes ‘just this once’ then ‘less than before’ and ‘hey, it’s hard to be a human’. The reason is obvious: you are still the same person on January 1 as you were on December 31, no matter what the ‘Peanuts’ calendar says.
It is appropriate that the opening track of what would become Death Cab For Cutie’s breakthrough album finds Ben Gibbard mere seconds into the new year, sadly realising that nothing has changed, nor is it likely to. “So this is the new year”, he singsongs, after a crash of guitars and firework drums triumphantly open the song. “And I don’t feel any different.” There is crystal clanging, firecrackers on the front lawn, but nothing here feels much like a celebration.
Gibbard is a vivid songwriter who – uncommonly in the world of popular song – always writes in complete sentences (It’s distracting when you first notice, but you get over this quickly.) “So everybody put your best suit or dress on. Let’s make believe that we are wealthy for just this once” he claps, sick of the artifice. He has no resolutions, and the fact he is mentioning this at all suggests he knows he is meant to. “I wish the world was flat like the old days” is a hilarious line, very ‘Seth Cohen’ (we’ll get to him, don’t worry), but the sting in the tail is that this old-worldy artifice would allow him to travel “just by folding a map.” He is missing someone. “No more airplanes, or speed trains, or freeways”, he daydreams. “There’d be no distance that could hold us back.”
It’s sardonic but big-hearted, much like a lot of the band’s music, and much like Seth Cohen – the fictional Californian outcast on ‘The O.C.’ whose love of the band saw Death Cab go from a respectable level of independent success to international stardom then back to somewhere nicely in-between.
‘The O.C.’ was a remarkable phenomenon that was crippled by its own success: as the show caught fire, the demands of keeping up saw the writing staff burn through story line after story line, while struggling to stay grounded by the same meta-wit that hooked those who would never admit to being in love with a soap opera. By season three they had jumped the shark, by season four they had been cancelled, and now, some years later, all the hype surrounding it seems like a fever dream only half-remembered.
Which is to say, both the show and this song feels like components of the same time capsule: pre-social media, post-mp3, back when bands that sound like Death Cab could score a Gold record, and a network soap opera could be on the cutting edge of things – even if it was just a self-aware 90210.
‘Transatlanticism’ sold over half a million records, and – coupled with the success of side-project The Postal Service – made Ben Gibbard’s life very different, although whether he “felt” any different is for him to say. Since then Death Cab signed to a major label, Gibbard married and divorced Zooey Deschanel, quit drinking and took up distance running, and moved to California (here we come) soon leaving for the more appropriate gloom of Portland. I hope he feels different – in a good way – even if it means his music feels different as a result.
It doesn’t matter, this is a song for the ages, no matter how tied to a particular time (and county) it may be.