Happy 15th Anniversary to The Postal Service’s debut (and only) studio album Give Up, originally released February 19, 2003.
The stars would have to be “perfectly aligned,” as Ben Gibbard sings on “Such Great Heights,” for a one-time collaboration on a niche IDM record to spawn a platinum-selling album. In fact, the only time it has happened is The Postal Service’s Give Up. Jimmy Tamborello, the DJ behind the Dntel moniker first recorded with Gibbard, the frontman of indie rock outfit Death Cab for Cutie, for his 2001 album Life is Full of Possibilities. That song, “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan,” was the runaway hit of the album, sparking remixes from electronic heavyweights like Superpitcher. That one track would introduce the world to the special chemistry of Tamborello’s inventive electronic sound paired with Gibbard’s sweet tenor and dreamy lyrics.
The name of the pair, The Postal Service, was a nod to their method of recording the album. Tamborello, in Los Angeles, would send CDs of electronic tracks to Gibbard in Seattle. Gibbard would then add vocals and melodies. He enlisted the help of fellow Death Cab for Cutie bandmate Chris Walla to add drums, guitars, and final production polish. This long-distance composition continued for ten months, finally resulting in the finished Give Up, released on Sub Pop in February 2003.
The biggest single off Give Up would be the oft-covered “Such Great Heights.” Gibbard sweetly croons techno love lyrics over a twinkling drum and bass track. The saccharine opening verse (“I am thinking it's a sign / That the freckles in our eyes / Are mirror images / And when we kiss they're perfectly aligned”), typical of Death Cab and their emo counterparts, felt original with the hyper tempo. Speeds that were normally reserved for more esoteric acts like Aphex Twin or Squarepusher turned pop when paired with tender melodies. “Such Great Heights” would go on to appear all over television (Grey’s Anatomy, Veronica Mars, and numerous commercial spots) and film (Iron & Wine’s cover for Garden State).
“The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” and “Sleeping In” feature Tamborello’s signature glitchy sound. Though iterations of this genre had existed for years, the success was generally isolated to the electronic music scene. But when polished up with guitars and drums like in “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” it becomes instantly accessible.
15 years later, Give Up still feels thematically fresh and relevant. “Sleeping In,” in particular, is a deceptively cheerful reminder of the sinister nature of a simplistic worldview. And when most of us feel rage fatigue setting in, the idea of “swimming any day in November” should still grab your attention. “Recycled Air,” a serene ode to a fear of flying, helps to lift you up after the techno-paranoia of “Sleeping In”—although you’re scared, you can still take a breath and ease your mind.
The post-apocalyptic “We Will Become Silhouettes” is a gleeful greeting for the end of times. The intense loneliness of the lyrics, “And I'm screaming at the top of my lungs / Pretending the echoes belong to someone / Someone I used to know,” are juxtaposed by the layered vocals of Jenny Lewis, harmonizing with Gibbard’s chirp. It’s fun to imagine the original production, Gibbard pulling the lovely, synthesized backdrop from his mailbox and thinking, “I’ll sing about a nuclear holocaust.”
Despite the strong emo thread running throughout, Tamborello’s intense production is not lost in the soapy vocals. The romantic break-up track “Clark Gable” is a charming narrative, propelled along with snare rushes and 808 beats. “This Place Is A Prison” would be at home on Transatlanticism (released by Death Cab later in 2003), but the sparse drumming towards the end nicely parrots the drum machines throughout.
“Brand New Colony” and “Natural Anthem” are proper dance songs, with long breakdowns at the end. “Brand New Colony” even throws in a bass drop, with a slower, more techno influenced tempo. The drawn out intro of “Natural Anthem” has frantic snare and great, hollow breakbeats. The tight buildup launches into fuzzed out chaos and then smooth vocals. It’s probably the closest to the original synergy captured on “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan,” a combination of feverish IDM coupled with starry-eyed songwriting.
Give Up would become one of the best-selling releases from Sub Pop (alongside Nirvana’s Bleach). And though Gibbard and Tamborello would both continue making music separately, The Postal Service is perhaps the most enduring endeavor of their careers. “Such Great Heights” was an upbeat shot of dance music being served at just the right moment in time, and brought a high-profile notoriety to their project. And when most of us were dealing with a serious pop music hangover from the late 90’s, The Postal Service delivered fun, light music with creativity and charisma.