Some bands are around for decades, creating more albums than you expect and touring for years. Others are a flash in the pan that make an impression felt for years to come. Electronic musician Jimmy Tamborello and Death Cab for Cutie vocalist Ben Gibbard created such an impression when they collaborated and released their only album fifteen years ago. That album was Give Up, a forty-five minute exploration of love, friendship, loneliness, and fame. Over the course of a year, Tamborello and Gibbard worked independently, mailing their work back and forth to one another. When the work was done, they were left with Give Up and the inspiration for the band’s controversial (if you ask the USPS) name: The Postal Service. Give Up reached a good level of success, praised by critics for its blend of whimsical lyrics and oddly complementary electronica tones. The cult classic was also a success sales-wise; Give Up became the second album from the Sub Pop Records label to go platinum, succeeding Nirvana’s Bleach.
The album is an exercise in introspection, recounting an experience for the listener and enveloping in emotion for each. The album opens on “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” which introduces this concept for the album. The slow description of a significant other’s new life and haunting “Where are you” repetition vividly paints a picture of distance between the narrator and his girlfriend, exploring his deep loneliness surrounded by new people.
Perhaps the most famous song from Give Up is the first single “Such Great Heights.” The single stands out for a variety of reasons; Gibbard himself says that it’s the only song he’s done that’s been positive about love. There’s a simple loveliness to the lyrics; the song opens with, “I am thinking it’s a sign/That the freckles in our eyes/Are mirror images/And when we kiss they’re perfectly aligned.” Even though it wasn’t the highest-charting single, it is the longest-lasting in the pop culture pantheon. Its popularity led to its inclusion in many pop culture mainstays like Veronica Mars, Grey’s Anatomy, and a seemingly never-ending variety of commercials.
While “Such Great Heights” may be the most enduring of the tracks, there’s no doubt that the breakup songs are what really make this album. Along with “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” “Nothing Better” and “We Will Become Silhouettes” show three different stages of a break up with an unexpected lightness. “Nothing Better,” a duet inspired by the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” is a calm bargaining session between two people on the verge of a breakup. Gibbard plays the part of the idealist who’s begging his girlfriend to stay together, while guest vocalist Jen Wood remains firm in her decision to leave. “We Will Become Silhouettes” likens a post-breakup world to a post-apocalyptic existence that the narrator finds too unpleasant to face.
With Gibbard’s lyrics and melodies driving the emotional arcs of the songs, Tamborello uses electronica to affect the height of emotion felt. There’s the quiet, almost lullaby-like tones throughout “Sleeping In,” the track that describes the certainty of the narrator’s imagined utopia. The wave of sound and skipping heartbeats of “Recycled Air” echo the singer’s dread experienced while trapped on an ascending airplane, watching the openness of the surroundings outside the window.
For most of the songs, the electronica blends with strings, percussion, and guitar to form a perfect storm of sound. Album closer “Natural Anthem” brings the album to a cinematic climax with four minutes’ worth of haunting sirens and and anxiety-inducing strings before Gibbard’s vocals take center stage. While Tamborello’s electronica suits Gibbard’s lyrics in most places, there are a few songs (namely “Nothing Better” and “Brand New Colony”) in which the tones take center stage over the lyrics, disrupting the experience. At times it almost sounds like someone is playing a video game while Gibbard is trying to sing.
How does the cult classic hold up all these years later? Pretty well. While the electronica sometimes disrupts the listening experience, for the most part it makes for a creative blend that makes Give Up quite memorable. The songs are an intimate, varied experience, creating for an emotional cocoon that wraps around the listener for the forty five minutes of its length. With this venture, the Postal Service created a fanbase of devoted followers, many of whom clamored for another album from the duo long after the release of Give Up. Unfortunately, following a brief 2013 reunion, Gibbard announced that they had played their last performance together and would definitely not be releasing a follow up album. Give Up continues to stand alone as the beloved only release from the Postal Service.