The Postal Service - Give Up

Albums from 20 years ago generally tend to age much better than albums a decade old. At 20, an album has time to see its influence slowly disseminate into music at large, to become a part of the cultural air we breathe. But when it’s only 10, a record feels like it’s only barely gone away, and it tends to carry with it all sorts of embarrassing baggage. Case in point: The Postal Service’s sole album Give Up. This particular record — a word-of-mouth smash from the first moment when the internet was helping to create word-of-mouth smashes and the last moment when a record could benefit from people putting its songs on personalized mix CDs for each other — has that factor working against it. It evokes memories of wack shit that we all loved during that particular cultural moment: Makeoutclub, bangs in dudes’ faces, Craig Thompson’s Blankets, Garden State. But here’s something: Give Up remains the best-selling non-Bleach album in Sub Pop’s entire discography, a distinction it achieved despite its makers doing almost nothing to promote it. It’s an album that came out of nowhere, more or less, to absolutely own its moment. And I loved it. I loved it so much.

If you don’t know the backstory, here’s the nutshell version: Jimmy Tamborello, a minor-ish figure in the so called intelligent dance music universe who recorded as Dntel, recruited Ben Gibbard, the singer of the increasingly popular emo-leaning college-rock band Death Cab For Cutie, to sing on his track “(This Is) The Dream Of Evan And Chan,” a song from his 2002 album Life Is Full Of Possibilities. The song, a love story about imagined versions of Evan Dando and Chan Marshall, turned out to be stunningly great, arguably the best thing either had ever done. So they decided, seemingly almost as a lark to make an entire album like that. They got their name because Tamborello would actually mail Gibbard the backing tracks, and Gibbard would then work on them in Chris Walla’s studio. When Give Up came out, it was an anomaly even in an underground landscape that had recently become friendlier to melody and feelings: An album of warm, squishy, gooily romantic new wave that proudly displayed labrador levels of goofy, awkward affection. Gibbard, Tamborello, and buddies like Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis (who sang on a few of the album’s songs) toured behind it halfheartedly for a few months. There were rumors that they’d started work on a follow-up, but, as the album’s popularity spread, they seemed almost embarrassed by it all, and they went back to their regular projects without looking back much.

(A quick aside: Their opening act for much of that tour was Baltimore’s Cex, an abstract electronic producer and absurdist party-rapper who I knew a little bit. When that tour wrapped up, Cex got to work with Craig Finn — who, at the time, was the guy from Lifter Puller and not yet the guy from the Hold Steady — on a project that he told me would be “the Postal Service for tough people.” But both guys got too busy, and neither one ever finished with it. Cex played me a track or two from the project once, and I wish to god that shit would come out.)

The actual story of the Postal Service, though, doesn’t begin to capture the warm, happy, not-so-alone feeling that it gave to a whole fuckton of sappily inclined young people, including the one writing this article. Before internet buzz became a pulverizing din — something which was happening right around the time the album came out, but which never quite applied to the album — it was possible to find a record like this one and feel like it was your own private discovery, even if vast numbers of other people were discovering just like you. The album was whispery, intimate, deeply melodic. Gibbard’s lyrics seemed smart and self-effacing in ways that they never quite were in Death Cab, and the songs with Lewis and Jen Wood sounded like incredibly crisp dialogs rather than sad-bastard soliloquies; I still love the way Wood’s character verbally slaps some sense into Gibbard’s character on “Nothing Better.” And even though the album’s construction process would seem to make that impossible, Tamborello’s tracks seemed to be geared around Gibbard’s emotional epiphanies, not it showing off his beat-warping capabilities. If you were of a certain age and disposition, the whole thing seemed to be intricately devised to reduce you to blubber.

Everyone has their own story about discovering the album, and here’s mine. I was about to move in with my girlfriend of two months, who is now my wife, because we really liked each other but also because we were both in super-sketchy roommate situations that we had to get out of. Amazingly, both of our sets of roommates had attempted to scam the power company, and that meant that we were both living in houses without electricity. A few days before moving into our new apartment, we were sleeping on an egg crate in my then-abandoned house (all the other roommates had moved out; we were there illegally), and I had no money because I’d spent it all on a security deposit. We were living on the Ramen noodle supply that hadn’t yet run out. But a few weeks beforehand, I’d interviewed the jittery postpunk band Erase Errata for the local alt-weekly, and they’d treated me like a joke and made fun of all my questions. I’d tried to turn it into a readable article, but no dice. A couple of days before we moved, I got a kill-fee check for the article, one that I wasn’t expecting because I didn’t know what kill fees were. I took that $45 and immediately spent it on three CDs — CDs, at that point, being more valuable to me than food. The other two albums, Manitoba’s Up In Flames and Wire’s Send, were good, but I don’t associate them with that moment. The two of us instantly fell in love with Give Up, though — blasted it over and over on our shitty boom box next to our milk crate, sang the songs to each other while we lugged our boxes a few blocks down, kept it on repeat while we figured out how to live together. It’s an album that I will always associate with one of the happiest times in my life.

Listening to Give Up as a critic now, I can say that parts of it have held up beautifully, like the shivery backwards string-loop that marks Wood’s entrance on “Nothing Better,” while some of it sounds leaden or maudlin or clumsy. The lyrics are pretty goofy now the same way a lot of the fiction that I loved at the time is pretty goofy. Tamborello’s tracks seemed a bit thin compared to what other producers were doing at the time. Other than, like, Bright Eyes’ Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, not too many big albums followed its beats-and-sighs lead. But I can’t listen to it critically, not really. To play the album is to send myself down a memory rabbit-hole, and I can’t imagine a time when it’ll just seem like another album to play.

In a couple of months, the Postal Service will head out on their second-ever tour. They’ll headline festivals and arenas, venues literally hundreds of times bigger than the ones they played last time they hit the road. Thousands will, presumably, sing along every night. Who knows, maybe they’ll make another album. It’ll all be pretty weird — because they were such a home-studio thing to start out with, because they always felt so small and intimate, because the songs are so deeply inscribed on my memory that I don’t really want to hear how they’ll sound booming from gigantic speakers. Maybe I’ll check them out. I probably won’t. It doesn’t matter. Because I can’t begrudge Gibbard and Tamborello whatever riches this whole enterprise grants them. They once made a record that meant a lot to me and to a whole lot of other people. That record deserves its victory lap.

Comments (59)
  1. Transatlanticism is a better album. We don’t remember that though, because the Postal Service didn’t stay around long enough to record lackluster or bad follow-ups during a gradual drift towards the middle.

    • Transatlanticism is better than most things in this world. But it’s nice to celebrate the Postal Service because the output of music is minuscule in comparison to Death Cab, and Give Up is a great album. And really, how do you know their follow up would be lackluster? You don’t, you douche. You’re probably not even an opossum.

      Opossum out.

  2. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see


  3. I’ll write you a song, and it won’t be hard to sing.

    It will be a natural anthem, familiar it may seem

    It will rally all the workers, on strike for better pay

    And its chorus will resound and boost morale throughout the day.

    (my favorite)

  4. It’s ok to love this album. It’s not a guilty pleasure.

  5. Bro. That’s Jen Wood on “Nothing Better.” Not Jenny Lewis.

  6. Pretty sure Jenny Lewis toured with them but didn’t do the female vocals on the album…according to Wikipedia it’s someone called Jen Wood. I don’t have my copy of the album notes here now but I think that’s right. Give the poor (unknown) woman credit where credit’s due!

    • Jen Wood did sing on ‘Nothing Better’ but otherwise Jenny Lewis sang most of the female backing vocals, on for example “We Will Become Silhouettes”.

    • Lewis did all the backing vocals on the album except for the female lead on “Nothing Better”. Lewis did perform Wood’s part on “Nothing Better” live and she killed it. The KCRW recording bares that out.

  7. “the cultural age we breathe”?? Does Stereogum not employ any editors?

  8. I wonder how many down/up votes I’ll get for saying…

    POSTAL SERVICE >>>> DEATH CAB

  9. I just got around to buying this on vinyl a couple weeks ago. And yes, I did play it on repeat for like 3 days. Took me back to sophomore year of college. Good times. Great oldies.

  10. last night i had the strangest dream—that Give Up came out 10 years ago. holy hell.

  11. I’m having a hard time with this whole reunion thing, but I’m not sure it’s for the usual reasons.

    For me, The Postal Service has existed since Give Up as a dying echo (don’t get me wrong it’s still, not exaggerating, one of my favorite albums of all time). But as hard as I try to fight it every time I play that album the immediacy leaves a little, and I have a theory as to why.

    I felt, still feel, like this album belongs to me and exists for me, like when I first listened to it I had done the rest of the world a favor. Now that the Postal Service are coming back it’s impossible not to notice how important the band is to so many other people, and something about that knowledge robs me of a bit of my ownership of the record.

    I really hope they make another album. Even if it isn’t great, it feels weird that the first time I feel like I’m really sharing the Postal Service with the rest of the world is for a 10-year reunion tour; that’s not how I want to remember them.

    • I kinda understand that. I think one too many Owl City’s have tarnished it’s original luster, which I think is related to what you are saying.

      Still, such a fabulous album.

    • and tom, props on the write-up, it had just the right amount of everything

    • I don’t really understand this. It honestly just sounds selfish. My favorite albums are always the ones I can celebrate with friends. I’m a Junior in College so maybe its an age gap thing. I’ve felt personal connections with TONS of albums, but never * individual* connections if that makes sense.

      • Don’t get me wrong Jonathan, this album did something unique for me. It was an album that I feel like a lot of my friends were listening to at the time (I was a freshman in college when it came out), but we really kept it to ourselves, not because it was a guilty pleasure, but because we weren’t really sure if it was as amazing as we thought it all was…

        And it was that amazing, and now that’s weird to me.

  12. I really wanted to like this article but dear God why did no one fix the error of citing Lewis as the singer on Nothing Better???? I’m not being pretentious, but for being so in love with that track you’d think you would know it wasn’t Jenny Lewis.

  13. So you had 45 dollars and no food, and decided to buy CDs?

      • That’s dedication man.

      • Okay, I know that people type “lol” all the time, but I want you to know that when I read that a portion of your $45 was used to buy the Postal Service album, I actually did laugh out loud. I totally get why Erase Errata made fun of you.

        • Boo to you sir, boo and indeed hiss.

        • It’s cool Mike, I laughed too. I also love how Tom’s matter-o-factness gets 17 upvotes like any other commentor on this site would’ve done the same. Bitch please.

        • Except Tom is still around and Erase Errata are… where now?

          I could see doing the same thing. I mean clearly he had already hunkered down knowing he was out of money, he said himself he wasn’t expecting a check for the interview. So it was cash he wasn’t planning on having, and honestly, I couldn’t tell you what I’d do with $45 that could keep me going longer than a few days.

          Instead he made the right choice: $45 for some albums he’s still talking about today. Still recollecting those memories. I guarantee you whatever food or clothing or shelter he would have bought with 45 buxx is besides the point compared to discovering good music. Treat yourself.

          • Now I can discover good music for free on the Internet. Probably the greatest memory of my recent life happened in 2011 with St. “Strange Mercy”, and I rapidshare’d it. I bought it later, of course.

            Anyway, I’m me and Tom’s Tom and I still like food.

          • Your first line is painfully dumb and could be applied to any number of great bands that have broken up in the last decade. Bands have a much shorter life than pretty much every career. Generally speaking, you can talk about other people’s music for a lot longer than you can create it with two to four other people. Who are the exceptions? Sonic Youth and Guided by Voices? Okay, only Sonic Youth and Guided by Voices are as great as Tom Breihan! Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

          • Treat-yo-self

  14. Instead of harping on the fact that Wood was actually on backing vocals on “Nothing Better” rather than Lewis, I’d rather say that I really enjoyed this article and hearing about your attachment with it. Like you, I’ve shared similar feelings with other albums in the past, but that’s neither here nor there.

    It’s refreshing to see the critical babble put on the back burner every so often.

    And I’m assuming people are choosing to compare ‘Give Up’ to ‘Transatlanticism’ because they were released within the same year? If we’re just comparing overall quality, I’d personally take anything by Death Cab PRIOR to Transatlicism over those two albums any day.

  15. Is this why they’re going on tour?!

  16. This is the first time one of these articles has made me feel old. I’m gonna go drink too much and possibly cry a little

  17. “This Place is a Prison” was my introduction to The Postal Service. It appeared on “Ultra Chilled, Vol. 4″, one of those random electronic music compilations with a picture of an attractive woman on the cover. The only other song I remember from that compilation is Lamb’s “Gabriel”, which also holds up as a pretty great song to this day.

    “Recycled Air” is probably my favorite Postal Service track these days, though. Good article, Tom.

    Say, how about a “Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts Turns 10″ article in a couple months?

  18. i still stand by my opinion that ‘we will become silhouettes’ is one of the 50 best songs of the last decade.

  19. Is it not cool to talk about such great heights

  20. There’s a couple of albums I associate with first starting to drive. This is one of them, even though I’d been driving for a year or so. I spent a lot of time in High School driving around with friends, but I also spent a lot of time alone, in a car, listening to music, taking pictures, reading books and art magazines at Borders (we’re old, guys) drinking coffee (which was also new) and having disposable income for the first time. Whenever I hear electronic music from this period I think about RES magazine and Lost in Translation and The Director’s Label dvds, Spike Jonze, William Eggleston, Mike Mills, my first real brush with contemporary art. I still love the record, too, and I think it holds up just fine.

    Also I have the most emo and embarrasing way of finding this album: a “friend” on LiveJournal posted about it and always had it in her “Now Playing” at the top of her posts. She was cute.

  21. Eh, I never much cared for anything but the first couple tracks. Rest was alright I guess, but I guess a lot of people connected with it in full.

  22. Craig Thomson’s Blankets is not “wack shit”

  23. “Nothing Better” is one of the most relatable break-up songs of all time in my opinion. I have always had the sense that a lot of the album is centered around that song, and it honestly really helped me through my worst “break-up” to date. That being said though, I have only spent about 4 years with the album, while I’m sure a lot of people have spent much more with it. But it holds a very special place for me, even though I would not put it in my top 5 or even 10 favorite albums of all time. It’s just special.

  24. I loved every part of this article. I love knowing that someone else loved this album as much as I did, and hearing about how it shaped your life 10 years ago. Seriously, well done.

  25. I was fifteen when this came out and just getting into my “first love” relationship. We listened to this when we snuck out of our houses to see each other. If you ever want to see a 25 year old man cry, come find me at the Detroit date of the reunion tour.

  26. That Apple advertisement gets me so heated.

  27. There used to be a company that made wallets that had 2 people with headphones on. It was a postal service wallet. Seems to me that pretty much describes the music. This is music to wear headphones to. And you wouldnt necessarily think so. Its not Radiohead or FlyLo where you pick up tiny details. Its more that the music is warm, and wintry, and cozy, and headphones enhance that.

    I think Give Up is a classic and masterpiece. One of the best albums of our generation. This album was the beginning of the rumblings of indie that would eventually engulf us all. Not too long after you had Trans and Good News, and hot fuss.

    This is pretty much a blueprint for 99 percent of all the indie that came later.

    I think the album is perfect. The songs are infinitely catchy. Dntel provides just the right amount of very understated beats and bloops.

    Seems so out of context in this gaudy apartment complex, stranger with your doorkey….

    Dont wake me I plan on sleeping in ooooooo ooooooo…

    I watch the patchwork farms, slowfade into the oceans arms and from here, they cant see me stare, the stale taste of recycled air…

    I want to take you far, from the cynics in this town, and kiss you on the mouth, we’ll cut our bodies free from the teathers of this scene, start a brand new colony, where everything will change, we’lll give ourselves new names, identities erased… EVERYTHING WILL CHANGE. OOOOO, OOOOO

    Without a doubt this is an essential indie album, essential indie starter kit album.

  28. i so miss this time in indie music. It seemed like there were all these new mindblowing bands in this mysterious and new genre. I just dont see bands like this or death cab or the killers making it in 2013. Its too melodic and beautiful sounding. Who knew of Death Cab back then? I also remember when the USPS used a Postal Service song in a commercial.

  29. The Postal Service and Death Cab will always make me nostalgic for the days of my youth. I first saw Death Cab in a tiny little venue in Portland with only about 50 people in attendance. I honestly thought they sounded bad live, but I still loved them. Give Up was such a refreshing, fun marriage of Death Cab and the electronic ish music I started liking at the time. There’s no reason for me to use < or compare the two, they exist for me independently and each equally gives me happy, sappy butterfies.

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