The Postal Service's Give Up turns ten

Geoff Nelson

The Postal Service, Give Up

In the winter of 2001 along North America’s far western boundary Jimmy Tamborello and Ben Gibbard sent each other burned CD-Rs of melody and music through the mail. Even at this advanced moment in human history, high speed Internet remained rare outside the confines of major corporations, colleges and universities. Two talented and obscure song writers would have to use the mail for uncompressed audio. This long distance demo music would become known as the project the Postal Service, and their debut record, Give Up, the finest electro-pop album in a generation full of electro-pop albums, would go on to sell over a million copies. Though most of America’s literate teenagers were getting lost in the Strokes’ Is This It that winter, it was the Postal Service that would come to define the emotional geography of the generation.

Thousands of miles away, like a lot of other people, I fell deeply in love. That winter I fell in love with a girl, and the next I fell for Gibbard and Tamborello’s band. It was, “like a lot of other people”, because love is a general specific, a weird human unifier and divider; it happens to almost everyone and still feels absolutely unique to almost everyone when it happens. Like a slowly dying relative or having your birthday, love is an undeniable fact of life, but broadcasting live from your tiny snow globe kingdom, you can’t help but think how crushingly original it is in this moment. So, like a lot of other people in the winter of 2001, I fell hopelessly and unoriginally in love with a brown-haired girl in a charcoal V-neck sweater. Almost everyone has a story a little like this one, and at least a million people have one that might be sound-tracked for some part of the last decade by the Postal Service.

As the band prepares to celebrate its 10 year anniversary with a tour and a re-issue of the album, my post- adolescent crush on a beautiful, light-eyed girl that same winter became the romance that would govern my next decade too. She and I, then just relative strangers sharing a bed, would never meet Gibbard and Tamborello, but none of the four of us could fully understand how intertwined these experiences would become in the next ten years. Gibbard and Tamborello could never properly grasp how many millions of adolescents would relentlessly write their stories into the spaces provided by Give Up. She and I knew each other eventually, we certainly knew the Postal Service, and they seemed to know everything about us.

Fast-forward a calendar year from our starting point to the grippingly cold academic winter of 2002-3. My small, somewhat elite private college had their first snow day in 30 years while two time zones away Gibbard and Tamborello prepared the release of Give Up on Sub Pop, a well-respected if self-consciously boutique label based in the Pacific Northwest. No major record company would have taken a risk on their project. Gibbard was merely the front man of a well-respected if boutique indie rock band, Death Cab for Cutie, and Tamborello, playing under the name DNTEL, was a keyboard mastermind with a penchant for making music that sounded like dial-up Internet hemorrhaging through a Casio. Gibbard had done guest vocals on a Tamborello single, “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan” the previous year, the beginning of this mercurial musical friendship.

No one could have known what we know now: “Such Great Heights” would be an infectious and marketable single. Even folk act Iron & Wine would perform an acoustic cover of the song and sync it to the Garden State soundtrack and a psychedelic M&M’s commercial, a moment that both made Iron & Wine’s career and broke the Postal Service firmly into the mainstream. Give Up, in addition to its eventual million copies sold, would become one of the defining love and loss albums for a generation. It would become one of the categorical generalities into which millions of kids and young adults would write their specific loves and losses. Heartbreak happened to everyone at least once in their 20s, and this is what that sounded like.

My narrative, like everyone else, was both different and entirely the same.

On February 13, 2003, just six days before the commercial release of Give Up, I broke up with the girl I loved for reasons that defied logic. She was going to study abroad the following year and I had just heard the Postal Service for the first time and proceeded to be wrecked about both these things in unsexy long form. This wasn’t simply because it was also the day before Valentine’s Day – this being the more important release date at the time – or because we proceeded to go out to dinner as planned the next evening, a meal that was at once unexpectedly expensive and expectedly truculent. That evening proved a terrible decision, the first of many, only surpassed by what transpired over the next seven months, where we saw each other off and on, broke up and got back together in the span of the same evenings, slept together and slept beside other people. This sordid descent, like the falling in love that preceded it, was unoriginal too, but we had no way of knowing that.

That late winter and spring after the release of Give Up I made every self-destructive decision possible, most of them prominently involving other women, American-style light lager, and incessant listening to debut Postal Service single, “Such Great Heights.” It was the earliest I had ever been “in” on something. This was going to be important and seemingly no one knew about it, the kind of dramatic irony that drives the selfishness of being culturally aware: I know something you don’t know. But, while I got drunk on the secret, the earliness of “Such Great Heights,” I ignored the rest of Give Up and successfully ignored my break up with the girl I loved. The rest of the record and the rest of a slow, sorry descent corrected this miscalculation.

Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello could never have anticipated the popularity or the emotional impact of Give Up, even if the record was hard-wired with emotional fatalism. Gibbard possessed an uncanny ability to write wrenching pop music about grinding emotional traumas. “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” the album’s opening track, was a nearly five minute gut-punch full of lyrics like, “I was the one worth leaving,” a line the band necessarily memorized, but one I wouldn’t fully appreciate until it was too late. The tour-de-force was “Nothing Better,” a thesis statement, a literal conversation between Gibbard and vocalist Jen Wood, that outlined the caution tape parameters of a bombed out relationship. Gibbard admitted these compositions were autobiographical. These were his specifics, surely, but agonies retrofitted for public consumption and for the filling in, Mad Libs-style, of all the names, places and people that ate at us too. These songs, “Nothing Better” and “The District” would be my undoing, along with millions of other adolescents and post-adolescents, even if we hadn’t listened to them yet.

In the spring and summer of 2003, Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello took their record on tour with help from Chris Walla of Death Cab and Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley, agonizing about how to make the studio recordings work in front of an audience. Give Up began to get traction on college radio, but my relationship with The Postal Service began and ended with “Such Great Heights.” It was a love song and I had loved and I would be in love again. Pop music and girls were cut from the same transformative, magical and boundless cloth. Women and melody were fantasies, a unicorn worth pursuing, never real enough to pose a genuine threat. Music and love were the hunted, not the hunter. I was the world’s most blissfully inert 20 year old and spent the summer chasing this feeling.

Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello spent the summer bringing their break-up record to the masses, covering the country and gaining popularity, slowly boxing me in like trade sanctions against a renegade dictator. They built their multilateral coalition without me, without even knowing me or my lost love; my fiefdom of self-delusion was complete and self-contained. But, Give Up was out there waiting for me. I could get into my bunker, I could listen to my few sycophantic advisors, I could live like the world’s most pathetic king, but, in time I would be forced to come to terms.

By the fall of 2003 things had come into sharper focus. The Postal Service was the darling of college students and a growing section of the public, using Gibbard’s loyal fanbase as a catapult to material fame, selling an adjusted average of about 5,000 copies a week between 2003 and its Gold certification in 2005. Gibbard’s other band, Death Cab for Cutie, released their seminal record, Transatalanticism in October of 2003, an album that resulted in a deal with Atlantic Records and Gibbard finally quitting his day job. Transatalanticism would sell nearly a quarter million copies in its first year, the beginnings of a movement that thrust traditional indie rock and traditionally independent labels into the mainstream. The Garden State soundtrack came out ten months later; things were firmly changing.

It was around this time in the fall and winter of 2003 that my ex-girlfriend and I began emailing one another across the ocean with subject headings of Postal Service songs. I had finally listened to the entirety of Give Up – she, predictably, had already done so – and from thousands of miles away we used it to write opposite narratives. Give Up convinced me that I didn’t want to love anyone else; “Such Great Heights” and “Brand New Colony” were about this girl and I loved her. I had made mistakes, sure, but I was ultimately an important person who loved her in a way others wouldn’t or couldn’t. Give Up convinced her of a different series of inviolable truths. It was a break up record and we had broken up. Worse, I had broken up with her first and ceded whatever moral high ground one potentially gets in moments like these. Magnanimity now firmly aside, this was all, ostensibly, my fault. I girded myself against the mounting evidence and typed subject lines like, “I want to take you far from the cynics in this town,” from my small liberal arts college in central Ohio. She typed subject lines of, “You’re getting carried away feeling sorry for yourself” from Paris.

These moments are as funny as they are embarrassing ten years later. Gibbard may feel now the same way about the songs he wrote then: beautiful, churlish and adolescent. Transformative and limited. My email subject line lyric, taken from “Brand New Colony,” finished with, “and kiss you on the mouth.” Her response, lifted from “Nothing Better,” finished with, “so let me help you remember, I’ve made charts and graphs that should finally make it clear. I’ve prepared a lecture on why I had to leave.” The rest of her email was exactly this lecture, though “Nothing Better” would have sufficed. I read it all in the only coffee shop in my college town and felt like throwing up. I skipped my actual afternoon lecture classes and – she and Gibbard were correct – felt sorry for myself. She and this one album were killing me. This place was a prison. It wasn’t just me. Almost everyone who loved or loves Give Up has a terrible emotional story to go with it.

There was nothing worse in 2003 than having the Postal Service’s “Nothing Better” rubbed in your face from the distance of a few thousand miles, especially as a 20 year old male armed with all the emotional depth and range of a Nicolas Cage performance. I had two settings: maniacal or morose. At my liberal arts college while skipping classes with titles like “Meanings of Death” and “Introduction to Advanced South Asian Literature,” I lay in my extra-long twin bed listening to “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight.” She was originally from the District of Columbia and this was one of these coincidences that felt very intentional at the time. Like a lot of early twentysomethings, this was all about me. Sure, Gibbard had written this about himself, but it meant more to me. I reclaimed it, and it was mine. It was about her too, like a singer thousands of miles away knew all about our slow, terrible divorce and wrote this to hurt or help us. I was convinced we should get back together, having made an enormous mistake. She was convinced I was an enormous mistake. I bought a bottle of Wild Turkey and resolved to be a problem drinker. She spent second semester in Barcelona.

That winter, the one year anniversary of the release of Give Up, was the high and low point for us all. The Postal Service would never know me or her, and we would only know them through their music, makers of hymns that felt written specifically for us. It was an odd disjoint, the collision of the most intense, terrible, and absurd emotional geography of my life and of a band beginning to grow popular who would never record again. As the Postal Service continued to gain popularity, it seemed more and more obvious there would never be another record from Gibbard and Tamborello. The Postal Service, despite the considerable talents of the two artists in question, never attempted to regenerate the beauty and pain of Give Up. I would never love or hurt as badly as I did that winter.

Over the years Gibbard has demurred when asked if he will ever release another Postal Service album, but it is clear he can’t or won’t. His most recent recorded comment was, “don’t hold your breath.” Time has only made Give Up more iconic, loaded with all the sentimental nostalgia of the million people who own the album and the many more who illegally downloaded some or all of it. Think of the sheer mountain of emotional expectations for a second release from everyone who listened to “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” the way I did. Think of all those decade-ago selves, now lost, all that nostalgia written into one record. We were older now, and he was too. If we couldn’t hear Give Up in the same way we heard it in 2003, how would he ever find the lost self who wrote it?

Of course, nostalgia is best packaged with a 10th anniversary tour and a reissued album. Nostalgia also usually makes its debut at Coachella. Nostalgia usually has a bigger checking account balance than real life does. The Postal Service, especially with their compartmentalized legacy, is no different. Gibbard prepares to reunite the band this spring to commemorate his great moment with Tamborello, coinciding with a double-album re- release of Give Up, featuring two new songs, “Turn Around” and “A Tattered Line of String”, in addition to a collection of live tracks and B-sides. Unsurprisingly, the final song on the second disk will be Iron & Wine’s iconic cover of “Such Great Heights,” the version of the song most responsible for the success of the band. For all the optimism of the Postal Service reunion, the chance to rehear these songs that meant so much 10 years ago, the chance to be that person again, the chance to feel, even just for a moment, the heat and hell of being young, the girl who launched a thousand emails and I would not be in attendance or getting back together.

Over the last ten years she and I have been in and out of love a few times. It was nothing like when it started, better in some ways and worse in others. We had aged, changed, both gotten a great deal smarter and a lot more numb. How could we possibly recapture the way we loved one another if we couldn’t recapture those naïve old selves? And would we even want to? If Gibbard couldn’t reanimate the past, how could we? So this past summer when she and I broke things off for the nth time, I was driven back to the Postal Service even though I knew it wouldn’t feel nearly as good or as terribly cathartic as it had in college. We couldn’t make it work for the same reasons Gibbard and Tamborello couldn’t make another album. It had been almost a decade, there was no next recording, those people were gone, and we lived on memories, songs, and recycled nostalgia.

We hadn’t listened hard enough – Give Up they told us and themselves, but we all kept trying anyhow. It was admirable but misplaced courage. We were now pushing past 30, and Gibbard was recently divorced from Zooey Deschanel. The Postal Service was a placeholder for things we felt during George W. Bush’s first term, like the lost anger about the Iraq war, a placeholder for the sorrow and passion of a generation who grew up wilting and against our collective will. We couldn’t and wouldn’t go back to 2003. Like so many others, we wrote our stories into that album and wrote the album into our stories. There it was kept. This was neither good nor bad, just the price of a decade spent with an iconic album and in the orbit of a transformative woman, a moment immortalized in time, kept there and gone for good. Like the Postal Service reunion, we could only celebrate and mourn our history; we couldn’t bear to write anything new.

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