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The Postal Service - Give Up

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Artist: The Postal Service

Album: Give Up

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: Mar. 31, 2003

Red Letter Day

After three weeks, I'm still looking for a good reason to tone down the almost hyperbolically glowing review I've been intending to write about the Postal Service's debut. I should be able to find fault somewhere, right? I mean, I suppose Give Up isn't a surprise. It sounds pretty much what you'd expect a snail-mail correspondence between a rock songwriter and an electronic producer would sound like. And maybe its crossover/overlap appeal isn't as wide as it could be. All the same, I'm struggling: this is the best album I've heard in a while.

Considering the increasing charm given the electro-pop domain by recent releases from outfits like the Notwist and Lali Puna, perhaps it was only a matter of time before artists established in the indie-rock category started cavorting with the esoteric electronic set. Hence, a collaboration between Ben Gibbard, singer and guitarist of Death Cab for Cutie, and DNTEL’s Jimmy Tamborello isn't so out of context; the two joined forces for the song "(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan" on DNTEL's 2001 Life Is Full of Possibilities, and now for a full album as the Postal Service. Fans of neither will be alienated or dismayed by the result, not even surprised — except at the moments of incredible beauty spread throughout.

The structural flow of Give Up as an album isn't especially remarkable, but that point is rendered immaterial by the sheer strength of its songs, as well as the striking harmony of its individual parts. The interplay of Gibbard's shyly introspective vocals with Tamborello's dense and meticulous backdrops works surprisingly well, at times better than anything to date from Death Cab or DNTEL. Each additional element —Gibbard on guitar or drums, or background vocals from Jenny Lewis (of Rilo Kiley) or Jen Wood — is incorporated into a gorgeous patchwork with a firm and imaginative foundation. Even when Gibbard's lyrics verge on pretentious or Tamborello's atmospheres follow tired techno stereotypes, the presence of the other manages to keep the project compelling.

"The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" starts the album innocuously, almost predictably, with a low, dull synthesizer hum, some cursory IDM clicks, and Gibbard's first forays into introspective abstraction: "I'm staring at the asphalt wondering what's buried underneath where I am." The song picks up slowly as Tamborello adds some faster clicks and frosty string plucks, and Lewis languidly repeats "where I am" in the distant background. After a bit of stop-and-start rhetoric, an energetic dance track surfaces, one that would be all brisk pace and strobe lights if not for the melancholy that dominates it. Indeed, observations like "I am finally seeing why I was the one worth leaving" would appear to have little place outside the arena of three-chord despair. However, Tamborello washes the song so thoroughly in the gloom of the original humming bassline, dropping in little bittersweet touches like persistent strings and synth creaks, that Gibbard's lamentations do not bring down the mood or pace of the music; rather, they validate both.

Next comes "Such Great Heights," Give Up's jauntily sweet first single. Gibbard describes it as his first go at writing a positive love song, and it works just as well his jaded ones. Tamborello lays down another dreamy atmosphere punctuated by synth pulses and slightly tinny drums, over which Gibbard comes closest yet to real candor in terms of both lyrics and delivery. It’s tempting to laugh at such lines as "I am thinking it's a sign that the freckles in our eyes are mirror images and when we kiss they're perfectly aligned," or at least the unironic (almost peppy) tone in which he sings them, but once again the correct placement of every tiny sound pushes the song beyond reproach.

Thus, after two songs, Gibbard and Tamborello have proved that their combined efforts adapt spectacularly to both gloomy resignation and romantic fancy without being maudlin or saccharine. Some of the record's next songs fall in a sort of lazy middle ground; "Sleeping In" captures the dreamy quality of both previous tracks but measures up to the beauty of neither, while "Recycled Air" never seems to get anywhere. Both are unquestionably pretty songs, but the remarkable harmony between the two composers is missing. If anything, there is almost too much of their individual influences; both have lyrical and melodic elements a bit too characteristic of Death Cab, yet also drown in the chilly Múm-like soundscapes that made up Possibilities. Their lyrics, too, as with the repetitive "We Will Become Silhouettes," are somewhat provocative, but seem mostly to be musings on arbitrary matters: intriguing and well-written, but lacking the sparks of creative majesty that abound elsewhere.

Yet the others between them bypass all objections with those touches of magic that start the record so strongly. One would not imagine that a song modeled after Human League's "Don't You Want Me" could be anything short of absurd, but the vocal tradeoff between Gibbard and Wood, combined with Tamborello's lush backdrop, suits "Nothing Better" perfectly. Gibbard plays the melodramatic, love-addled boy ("Would someone please call a surgeon who can crack my ribs and repair this broken heart that you are leaving for better company?") while Wood responds as the better-adjusted instigator ("Your heart won't heal right if you keep tearing out the sutures."), and all the while Tamborello's bells and strings slide into place on the track's icy surface. The result, though silly in theory (and no less so on paper), is still great. The same is true of "Clark Gable": between its hopelessly romantic outlook and its thumping beat, it sounds at first a bit too boyish (or, worse yet, club-ready) to be taken seriously, but its hook and even its lyrics simply work too well to be denied. The clanging horns of the chorus and the climactic harmonies of its conclusion are irresistible — to hell with knowing better.

But all heights reached so far are surpassed by Give Up's final act. Beginning with the devastatingly morose "This Place Is A Prison," the end of the album is at once musically sublime and emotionally riveting. "Prison" casts sparse electric piano notes and lonely accordion under Gibbard's near-whispered words, writhing in silent angst until drums and strings erupt with the repetition of "What does it take to get a drink in this place?" The album's brightest highlight follows, the breathtakingly gorgeous "Brand New Colony," in which all the potential of the Postal Service coalesces: Gibbard's imagery flows as simple poetry, while Tamborello's busy-yet-pensive underscore is simply perfect (and all the more impressive considering its reliance on early Nintendo sounds). Finally comes "Natural Anthem," the noisy counterpart to the sparseness of "Prison," beginning with four minutes of blistering big-beat before calming down for two brief verses and cutting out in a wash of static. It seems odd to end Give Up on such a frenzied note, especially in comparison to the unexcitable solemnity which Gibbard lends the rest of the album. Still, "Natural Anthem" closes it well, as though finally, momentarily, voicing the excitement lurking beneath the surface the whole time.

So I love this record. Why, then, look for negatives to balance out my praise? Because I know Give Up won't be for everyone, though I'm still not certain why. The indie rock pedants may scoff at how earnest and catchy it is (let alone those who lump Gibbard in with the maligned coterie of emo kids), and the IDM purists may call out Tamborello for creating such accessible song structures. But on the simplest level, the one on which all of us are still suckers for a great melody, poetic insight, and near-perfect synthesis of everything else involved, Give Up is unimpeachable.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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