Monday, June 15, 2015

Paddy Johnston on Transatlanticism (Guest Post)

So Songs About Albums: Volume 1 was released on Saturday, and the response has been exceptionally positive so far. Paddy Johnston's Greyscale Dream (a tribute to Death Cab for Cutie's Transatlanticism) is the first track on this album about albums; in today's guest blog, Paddy has very kindly agreed to share his thoughts on Transatlanticism and give us a bit of insight into why he chose to write a song about it. Over to you, Paddy...

My love of Death Cab for Cutie's Transatlanticism began not with the album itself, but - fittingly enough - with a compilation.

The compilation in question is Atticus: Dragging the Lake, Vol. 3, which was released in February 2005. I doubt many people remember the Atticus compilations now, but at the time they were a pretty big deal if you were of a certain age and your musical taste leant towards what was very loosely termed 'emo'. I was sixteen when that compilation came out, had just started trying to play in bands with school friends, and was super excited to listen to it, having loved volumes one and two.

Most of volume three of the Blink-182-curated compilation was the standard post-hardcore of the time, but seven songs in was a track that stuck out, and this was Death Cab's The New Year. Everything about it was, in that moment, unexpected, refreshing, mature and challenging at a time when I needed that. I was expecting another angry punk rock song – irreverent lyrics, fast drums, distortion. What I got was a slow fade in, an emphatic swell, overdrives and delays and harmony, soft and sensitive.

The lyrics immediately grabbed me, too. The opening line ("So this is the new year, and I don’t feel any different") was a sentiment I hadn't heard anyone voice up until that point. I'd had a couple of crap NYE parties in recent years and never been able to stick to resolutions, and so I generally never felt much towards years rolling into one another. Hearing someone sing my exact feelings towards this over elegantly produced indie-rock guitars was a big moment for me, at the time.

I didn't hear the rest of the album until about a year later, but I listened to that song on repeat on my first iPod, the technology of which was still new and exciting at the time. We still had to buy albums on CD and laboriously copy them over to the iPod, and I was still spending most of my money on metal and punk CDs, so I didn't buy Transatlanticism. Instead, I sort of inherited it.

My parents split up in December 2005, and my dad left without completely clearing everything out of the house. He left a lot of CDs behind, all of which were by great bands, and Transatlanticism was at the top of that pile, the red-bound blackbird staring at me, asking me to open up the case, drawing me into his world. The album became an emblem, through its softness, slowness and light ennui-beset lyricism, of late teenage alienation, coming of age and getting through my parents' divorce, among other things. It also hit me at the time I was starting to write my own songs properly and to explore songwriting as an avenue of expression. As the refrain of Greyscale Dream says, quite simply, everything changed.

Would I have felt (and still feel) the same if I'd been 19, 21, 25, or 30 at the time? Perhaps not. But that doesn't take away from the effect of the album, or from the fact that it's an impeccably produced, mature and striking album that has touched a lot of people of all ages. Looking at it ten years later, objectively, I still think that.

I've also found that, as most of Death Cab’s songs are about relationships, the album's themes have hit me more and more as I've grown older. When I first heard the album, I'd never been in a relationship; later, when I had, I was able to relate to the album on yet another level, to peel away some more layers of the onion, if you like. Death Cab are a band that continue to make great music, too – I saw them live this week on the tour for their new album Kintsugi, and the songs from Transatlanticism are still live staples, are still crowd favourites, and still really hold up live, even as the band continues to change.

Most, perhaps all, of the songs on Songs About Albums, Vol. 1 are about time and space – if not the time and space in which the songwriter had a particular experience with a particular album, then a time and space in which the album becomes a focus and driver of the narrative, as in Shiny Tiger’s Separation Sunday Sunday. Transatlanticism, for me, is no different – it evokes numerous times and spaces, but also grew with me through newer times and spaces as a constant album, and one I return to often. That’s how a great album, and your relationship with your favourite albums, should be. And the Songs About Albums compilation reflects this, which is why I’m stoked to be a part of it, and really looking forward to volume 2.

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