It’s 2016, I’m listening to 52 albums in 52 weeks. For more info on what this is about, read this.
Why did I pick this album?
Give Up was recommended by one of my Facebook friends when I asked people to suggest albums that “changed their life.” I knew when I asked this question people wouldn’t take the “changed their life” part seriously, and sure enough I got a lot of people recommending a dozen or so different albums which I’m highly skeptical all of them had such an influence on them. However, this particular album I took note of because the person who suggested it had mentioned in the past that they were a big fan of American Football’s American Football, one of my favorites, and after listening to the first track of Give Up it seemed like a deeply personal album. Since it actually fit the description of what I was looking for I decided to jump to it.
Who Are The Postal Service? What is Give Up?
The Postal Service is a duo between vocalist Ben Gibbard and “producer” Jimmy Tamborello. Their name derives from how the music of the band was created. Tamborello, typically known as an electronic musician under the name “Dntel,” would make instrumental tracks in their entirety and send it to Gibbard through the United States Postal Service, who would then add vocals and edit the track as he’d see fit. It’s worth noting that Give Up came out in 2003, and Gibbard is mostly known as the lead singer of Death Cab for Cutie but Give Up came out just before Death Cab became immensely popular. Technically there are additional members of The Postal Service, but they only provide backing vocals on some tracks. The minds behind this project are solely Gibbard and Tamborello.
Give Up proved to be widely successful in the indie world. It was released under Sub Pop, and Give Up became their second most successful album in their history, just barely behind Nirvana’s Bleach. Despite the success, The Postal Service would never release another album. They would reunite in 2013 for a reunion tour and the two members are constantly asked about a possible second album, which is sometimes referred to an “indie Chinese Democracy,” but they’ve definitively said there isn’t one and never will be, citing commitments to their current projects. Their other projects may prove more financially successful but neither Death Cab for Cutie nor Dntel have ever received as much critical acclaim. Give Up was listed on Pitchfork Media’s and Rolling Stone’s lists for Top Albums of the Decade for the 2000s.
What Did I Think?
As I mentioned before, Give Up is a personal album, but I said that mostly because I immediately clicked with the tone that Gibbard sets up. The first song, “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” is about a break-up. Gibbard has a slow realization of how out-of-place he was in his ex’s life compared to where they are now (“A stranger with your door key explaining that I’m just visiting”). After discovering this, it dawns on him that he was worth dumping (“And I am finally seeing, Why I was the one worth leaving”). This type of honest self-loathing is present throughout the rest of the album. As someone who dabbles in self-deprecation and being hard on themselves, I was immediately receptive to this tone, which continues throughout the rest of the album.
From what little I’ve heard of Death Cab for Cutie, it seems Gibbard has made a career out of being an honest insecure introvert, and I know just mentioning his main band’s name can induce moans for a lot of people, but for me, and for Give Up, it’s new. Gibbard doesn’t take the easy way out either. Whereas many people with the “poor me” complex are prone to depicting themselves as saviors of the world, he seems keenly aware of his own bullshit. In “Nothing Better,” another break-up song, Gibbard sings about how there could “nothing better than making you my bridge and slowly growing old together.” Just as that lyric is said, guest vocalist Jen Wood is introduced as the girlfriend character for the song: “I feel I must interject here, you’re getting carried away feeling sorry for yourself,” and it goes on. The best analogy I can draw is to action films and the concept of a “power fantasy.” Some introverts, such as myself, love a good downer-fest. Sometimes you get in a rut and you just want to stay there for a bit, ya know? Give Up seems to be going in the direction of feeding into all of the vices of someone who pities themselves and songs like “Nothing Better,” or “Clark Gable,” don’t let them get away with it. Which is fine, because we know we shouldn’t be so down on ourselves anyway.
There are other tangential topics covered on the album. “Recycled Air” seems to be about an anxiety surrounding traveling by plane, “We Will Become Silhouettes” covers a story about loneliness with a backdrop of nuclear fallout, and “Brand New Colony” dabbles in the idea of starting a new colony without cynics, although arguably Gibbard is one of those cynics for the rest of the album. Loneliness, anxiety, relationships, and failure are the connective thread of the album called Give Up and that shouldn’t surprise you.
What was surprising was how well the music of Give Up matches the themes of the album, even though they were made completely separate from the lyrics. Every melody has a frantic insecurity to it, constantly changing every measure or two. I could say it’s “as if they had no confidence in what they made so they just kept changing to keep it interesting,” but the truth is probably due to Tamborello’s background as an electronic musician which typically has more frequent melody changes as opposed to repeating the same bar over and over. Still, before I went on Wikipedia and read about the band I thought it was an interesting parallel between the music and the lyrics.
The busy nature of the songs stuck with me though on each repeat listening. My initial impression of The Postal Service was they were a “somber” sounding band, which would make sense, given their lyrical content. But even their most low-key track, “This Place is a Prison,” has a constant drum track, and it isn’t long before chimes and an accordion is introduced, because why not? In fact some of the songs are deceptively fast-paced because they begin with slower paced introductions, such as “Such Great Heights,” and “Natural Anthem,” before introducing breakneck drumbeats that carry the whole song. I ended up having mixed feelings toward some of the songs I initially liked and pleasantly found myself appreciating songs I didn’t intend to find on an album that started with something as low-key as “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” (“Natural Anthem” ended up being one of my favorites).
I can see how Give Up could influence someone’s life, especially in a “right time, right place” kind of way. It’s certainly turned me onto Gibbard’s work, even if that means I’m officially a dweeb for having “Death Cab for Cutie” in my search history. Whatever man, be your own person. Also that guy was married to Zooey Deschanel for at least a day, so he’s appealing to something.
Next week I decided to check out David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. In case you’re wondering, I’ve never heard a David Bowie song. Check it out on Spotify or YouTube.