Give Up Turns 10
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.