The Postal Service’s ‘Give Up’ Turns 10: Backtracking
Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
For those of us who grew up with it as our soundtrack, I think, revisiting The Postal Service‘s Give Up is an unusually poignant exercise in nostalgia. (Listening to the music you once loved always does that, of course, but man, if Give Up doesn’t evoke a whole lot.) There’s no album that better captures that early angst of youth for me, all those feelings about lives that hadn’t been lived enough yet.
And while it’s true that there are other albums and songs released at that time that are almost difficult to listen to, for the sheer intensity of feeling that’s associated with them — Rilo Kiley‘s The Execution of All Things and The Notwist‘s Neon Golden spring to mind, as does Transatlanticism, by The Postal Service’s frontman Ben Gibbard‘s band Death Cab for Cutie — for me, nothing compares to Give Up.
Ten years! It’s been ten years since Give Up was released, which means it was ten years since it meant that much to me (to us), but the cult following the album amassed upon its release is still puzzling to listen to it now. It wasn’t groundbreaking, per se — just exceptionally well-timed. As the story goes, the album was created by Death Cab lead Ben Gibbard and his producing partner, Jimmy Tamborello of lesser-known electro outfit Dntel, through an old-fashioned correspondence, sending pieces of songs back and forth to each other. The titular homage notwithstanding, there’s nothing about the album that betrays its epistolary origins; it feels cohesive.
But it also feels like a marriage of two disparate elements: The wounded angst of Gibbard, whose lyrics were always so likably prolix you could practically see the semicolons in them, and Tamborello’s synth-happy stylings, which made Gibbard’s guitar pop glitchy and aerobic in a way it had never been before. (The closest to Give Up Gibbard had ever gone before, I think, was “405,” from Death Cab’s sophomore LP We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes. Listen for that propulsive backbeat and the way it pushes you through the song, forcefully.) Give Up didn’t do anything strictly innovative, but it took the most gleamingly magical pieces of two genres — Death Cab’s emo-inflected alt-pop and Tamborello’s twitchy “IDM” — and made something with them that was greater than the sum of its parts.
The songs themselves are perpetually on the tightwalk between the drippy sentimentality of emo and the cool artifice of electro; the masterful part is how they take the best elements of each while mostly discarding the worst. The harmonies are lushly organic in “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” even as the beat turns into something more urgent, and it’s hard to believe just how crushingly sad the lyric “I am finally seeing why I was the one worth leaving” really is. One song later is another track about slumber, but “Sleeping In” is sing-song, made magic by the high-low distortion and the utopian bent of its lyrics a funny counterpart to the wearied tenor of “District.”
“Such Great Heights” and “Nothing Better” are both euphoric — in the former, Gibbard’s nasal vocals are almost androgynous as the track thuds and skitters, spacey blips and bleeps like stars in a constellation. It’s the rare song that feels three-dimensional. “Nothing Better” might be the best on the album (but then, they all feel like the best when you’re listening to them). The lyrics are like every Tumblr meme ever, but better. Tattle Tale vocalist Jen Wood (remember “Glass Vase Cello Case” from the But I’m A Cheerleader soundtrack? Surely I’m not the only one) lends fittingly surgical precision to the twee sound, in turns both dizzying and diffuse.
“Recycled Air” is a swirling Ambien dream, while “Clark Gable” is cinematic whimsy, but “We Will Become Silhouettes” sounds big as it starts off small and climbs to a roar. In the tense instrumentation that builds in the song’s first minute, it feels like a house song that never gives us the explosive David Guetta dance break we’ve come to expect. “This Place Is a Prison” is a dissonant groan in a Tacoma coke den, but even it is dappled with synthy digressions that inject levity into the song’s dour tone. Better is “Brand New Colony,” with its Atari beeps and bloops (this one is also definitely the best) imploding into a trippy beat; back then, we had no idea we were listening to drum-and-bass-lite.
The closer, “Natural Anthem,” defies the pop sensibility that’s defined most of the songs that precede it; it’s a big electro collapse into squalling sounds with one instrumental hook woven through the song’s tissue like the breakdown of a machine. It makes sense, somehow. People complain that electronic music is cold and artificial, but Give Up is as warm and personal as anything with real instruments, a bracingly intimate album borne from the sounds of alienation.
Now, as the band prepares to reunite for a string of concerts and a 10th anniversary reissue of the album, the pop marketplace is a radically different place. Nobody even talks about IDM anymore, not the way they did then, and dance beats are ubiquitous in every genre, a Calvin Harrisification that would have been unimaginable in 2003. But that first introduction to how magical synthesized beats could be when they were married to something that felt emotionally gripping is probably why I loved the album so much, maybe why we all did. Ten years ago, I sent these songs back and forth to my friends online, but I marveled at their glitchy slickness with genuine, enraptured joy. That was the human part of something that existed only within my computer, something that felt every bit as real as letters sent by mail.