It seemed radical at the time.
Nowadays Give Up, the one and only album from the Postal Service, is electro-pop as classic rock. By the time it soundtracked a UPS commercial in 2007, the album’s best-loved single “Such Great Heights” — fodder for countless covers, including the even soppier Iron & Wine version you know from an M&M’s ad — had become a comforting, familiar sound, a sort of aural safety blanket for sensitive millennials. It wasn’t always this way. Not that the convergence of Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello ever qualified as avant-garde, but there was a time when it was surprising and even thrilling to hear the guy from Death Cab For Cutie singing over synthesizers and programmed beats. That it came out on Sub Pop was even wilder.
When it released Give Up 20 years ago this Saturday, Seattle’s flagship independent record label was undergoing a metamorphosis. First known as the launchpad for grunge, Sub Pop went through wilderness years in the mid-to-late ’90s. Co-founder Bruce Pavitt departed acrimoniously in 1996, and those who remained continued to burn through lots of money gained from selling half the label to Warner Music Group in ’95. As they branched out in search of a new identity, nothing seemed to stick. Early-2000s releases from the Shins and Iron & Wine finally achieved some progress on that front, evolving Sub Pop’s signature sound from loud, angry guitar music made by would-be lumberjacks to soft, pretty guitar music enjoyed by Seth Cohen types. Other than a couple Looper albums that only barely scanned as pop music, the label had no real electronic footprint to speak of.
Death Cab, which arose out of nearby Bellingham in the late ’90s, was a guitar-based operation at the time too. The band had occasionally laced its songs with electric piano, and studio-wiz sideman Chris Walla would soon incorporate keyboards and sampling to a greater extent on 2003’s star-making Transatlanticism. But skip around that record and you’re greeted with walls of guitar and a pounding rhythm section. Death Cab were making rock music through and through, poppy and accessible but not hybridized in the slightest. Of the two lead singers on 2002’s fabled Death And Dismemberment Tour, the Dismemberment Plan’s Travis Morrison seemed far more likely to be working on a synth-pop album on the side.
Yet it was Gibbard who had already found his way onto Life Is Full Of Possibilities, the 2001 full-length from Tamborello’s production alias Dntel. Two prior albums of glitchy instrumentals had earned Dntel a reputation as part of the so-called IDM scene. With LP3, in a stroke of genius, Tamborello recruited vocals from indie and alt-rock musicians — Brian McMahan from Slint and Squirrel Bait, Rachel Haden from That Dog, folk singer Mia Doi Todd, and so on — and began shaping his productions into something more like songs. The highlight of the album was the Gibbard collab “This Is The Dream Of Evan And Chan,” which emerged from static to rumble forward through the digital fog, Gibbard’s vocals glowing faintly in the overcast landscape.
“It was familiar to me,” he sang, in an environment that felt entirely unfamiliar to anyone spinning We Have The Facts and The Photo Album at the time. But if the song was novel, it did not come off as novelty. Among the small circle of listeners who heard it, “Evan And Chan” became a sensation: “not only one of the best songs of 2001, but perhaps the perfect synthesis of IDM production and indie pop songwriting,” per Pitchfork’s Matt LeMay. “I won’t let go,” Gibbard later sang, a lyric mirrored when he and Tamborello decided to keep working together.
Gibbard ended up on the Dntel album because he was friends with Tamborello’s roommate in Los Angeles, Pedro Benito of the Jealous Sound. When Tamborello heard Gibbard was coming to stay at their house for a few days, he sent the track for “Evan And Chan” and asked if he’d want to contribute. Gibbard laid down his vocals during his stay in LA and was so taken with the results that he pitched Tamborello on the idea of doing an EP together. Tamborello’s college pal Tony Kiewel had just signed on to do A&R for Sub Pop; when he learned of the collaboration, he urged the duo to make a full LP. “People will review it, and you can sell it for three times as much,” Kiewel explained in EW’s oral history of Give Up. “I told them for sure Sub Pop would want to do it if that was something they wanted to do.”
It came together long-distance: Tamborello made the beats in Los Angeles and physically shipped CD-Rs of his work to the Sub Pop office in Seattle, where Gibbard would swing by to pick them up. Working at home or at Walla’s recording studio, the singer would then add vocals and some light instrumentation of his own and send the results back to Tamborello, who continued to tinker. This process was why they called the band the Postal Service, though Kiewel specifies that they actually used UPS and FedEx, not the USPS. (Sorry if that makes you feel like your life was built on a foundation of lies.)
Recording continued at a casual pace for about a year as Gibbard also worked on the songs that would become Transatlanticism. Jen Wood, an old friend of Gibbard’s who’d played shows with Death Cab, stopped by Walla’s Hall Of Justice to track backing vocals on “Such Great Heights” and duet with Gibbard on “Nothing Better.” At one point the band convened again in Los Angeles, where Jenny Lewis — then a stranger to both Postal Service members — picked up Gibbard at the airport in Rilo Kiley’s tour van, drove to meet Tamborello at a Mexican restaurant, and headed to his place to record backing vocals on half the album. They never realized they were altering the course of indie rock. “I say this without any ego, but making Give Up was incredibly effortless,” Gibbard told EW, explaining why a second Postal Service album never came to pass. “There was little struggle. Everything we tried worked.”
Gibbard’s sense that they’d captured lightning in a bottle is on-point. Even those who think the album is wimpy or chintzy or radically front-loaded, you can’t deny its anthropological impact. Though hardly the first instance of an underground guitar guy dabbling with keyboards, immediate predecessors like the Notwist’s IYKYK classic Neon Golden weren’t exactly getting KROQ spins. Give Up had a seismic effect within the business and culture of indie rock, opening up a whole new wing within the genre, laying groundwork for future synth endeavors like Passion Pit and Chvrches, and contributing to a longterm metamorphosis that saw Big Indie nearly swallowed up by mainstream pop. Despite that undeniable significance to the trajectory of their scene, I remembered the album itself as good not great, less a masterpiece than an inspired conversation piece. Instead, listening back, I’m amazed at how well the whole thing holds up.
It’s certainly not flawless. There are synth tones on the album that could be unflatteringly mistaken for Super Mario sound effects. Gibbard’s erudite poetry is cloying at times, especially the famous “Such Great Heights” opening line, “I am thinking it’s a sign/ That the freckles in our eyes are mirror images/ And when we kiss, they’re perfectly aligned.” His back-and-forth with Wood on “Nothing Better” is unflinchingly twee. But of course it’s twee; merging his region’s signature indie-pop affectations with electronic beats is what made Give Up feel so revolutionary. The album wouldn’t have connected with so many listeners if it hadn’t pulled off that mixture so skillfully. The songwriting is sturdy, the arrangements are savvy, and if you’re bought into the Postal Service’s shtick, so much of this music just soars — except when it gorgeously creeps.
“Jimmy’s natural inclination is more of a post-rock structure,” Kiewel noted in the EW feature. “Things build slowly to a big climax. Whereas Ben is more steeped in traditional verse-chorus-verse structures.” Those competing impulses find synchronicity on opener “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” which spends nearly five minutes growing from a somber keyboard riff to a symphony of synths, samples, and skittering programmed drums even as Gibbard and Lewis steer the ship with harmonized outbursts and a catchy refrain. From the symphonic strings swirling around its verses to the electric guitar that steals the spotlight on the bridge, the song presents a complex vision of electro-pop with one foot in Gibbard’s world. Yet by the time he’s exclaiming, “You seem so out of context/ In this gaudy apartment complex,” the beat has dropped, and Give Up is off to the races.
“District” works wonders as an entry point, but there’s a reason “Such Great Heights” was the lead single. The song adheres more closely to verse-chorus-verse, its pinging headphone-friendly intro segueing into some of the purest pop songwriting on the record. The melodies are indelible, and the groove whisks you away, magic-carpet style, until you really do feel like you’re riding on the clouds. Yet the production is just jagged enough to keep it all from going down too smooth, be it Gibbard’s spiky guitar riff in the middle eight or the jarring cracks of Tamborello’s crisp drumbeat. There’s so much more going on here than the basic elements Sam Beam harvested for his goopy remake.
That complexity is an underrated aspect of Give Up. These songs were expertly crafted, full of tiny details and production flourishes that contributed to the overall dynamism of the music. “Nothing Better” foregrounds the cute interplay between Gibbard’s lovestruck character and Wood as the skeptical recipient of his affection — “Don’t you feed me lies about some idealistic future” rescues the track from saccharine oblivion — but the song moves too, gracefully navigating a minefield of floating computer sounds and intersecting vocal lines. “Brand New Colony” morphs from ear-grabbing 8-bit synth melodies into warm waves of shoegaze guitar. I never fully appreciated the post-rock qualities of tracks like the bouncing, pulsing “Clark Gable” and the darkly burbling “This Place Is A Prison.”
As Give Up grew into a sensation and a cultural touchstone, inferior imitators like Owl City — who ultimately took a Muppet Babies version of this sound all the way to #1 — rarely matched the musical substance Tamborello and Gibbard brought to the Postal Service. It was a lot easier to copy the wide-eyed sentimentality of lyrics like “I want so badly to believe that there is truth and love is real” and the prolonged-adolescence vibes of a chorus like “Don’t wake me up when I’m sleeping” than to craft electro-organic beats as hard as these. Sadly, you can also hear echoes of the Postal Service, perhaps via Owl City, in hours upon hours of YouTube preroll music. It’s a complicated legacy, but just as there’s no need to blame Pearl Jam for the lineage of alt-rock yowlers, if you can shed the decades of context and get back to the source, you’ll find an album that stands the test of time.
Gibbard and Tamborello seem to realize that. After some aborted attempts to record a follow-up in the spaces between Death Cab albums, the Postal Service have wisely let their beloved classic stand alone. Ten years ago, just after Give Up became the first Sub Pop release to be certified platinum since Nirvana’s Bleach, they got the band back together and took the album out on tour. Another decade has passed, and they’re doing it again this fall, this time with Gibbard pulling double duty as Death Cab celebrate 20 years of Transatlanticism. If the 2013 outing was a chance for people who missed the brief 2003 tour a chance to finally see the Postal Service live, these upcoming shows are a purely nostalgic operation. Give Up no longer comes across as radical or novel or forward-thinking. In a development perhaps more improbable than the album’s creation, it sounds like music that has always existed. Life really was full of possibilities.