As I write this, I am listening to The Postal Service’s Give Up for the umpteenth time since its release a decade ago. The Northwest breeds a very specific sound into its rock music, so it stands to reason that that same sound would be very prevalent in the electronic music made herein. The thing that everyone forgets is that, somehow, this album broke a substantial amount of ground, in ways that weren’t immediately obvious. For me, there was something tremendously beautiful about the blips and beats all over that record, and even now, listening to “Recycled Air,” I find myself with goosebumps. It’s an unassuming record, and it has been a year or two since I’ve put the album on. However, The Postal Service have returned from their slumber to celebrate the decade’s passage by playing a few shows, and with all of the talk about how happy I am to have them back, it feels necessary to listen again.
I was dying my hair black when I first heard “Such Great Heights,” in the bathroom of our apartment in Washington. I don’t know what I thought I was hearing, but just like everyone at that point in time, I fell in love with that sound. This was not long after the release of both Give Up and the Death Cab for Cutie record Transatlanticism, which meant that Ben Gibbard’s voice was a mainstay on my radio, and in turn, in my head. At this point in time, my love of Seattle music was just beginning to take hold (thanks to Modest Mouse and Nirvana, which I had also just truly discovered), and as such, I grabbed onto Gibbard’s music and lyrics like a life raft. Give Up became something of a safety blanket to me, once I got myself a copy, and I almost never wanted to stop listening to it. To this day, it’s one of the only albums I know every square inch of, front to back, purely from memory. Even my favorite albums, which I return to more often than this, have strange gray areas in my memory.
Gibbard’s words felt like they could never have been recorded in a studio. This was where “bedroom recording” was slowly starting to become truly prominent, and the back-and-forth between his words and the incredibly organic programming delivered by Dntel mastermind Jimmy Tamborello formed a beautiful language that a lot of musicians would pull inspiration from. These were songs that were born out of solitude, which comes across on the recordings incredibly well. This is, I imagine, why the songs resonate with others in such a way: to their ears, this is the work of two people dancing, but doing it in the form of sound. The songs feel resigned to this isolation, which is why the album’s title feels like a helpful suggestion, rather than a command: give up.
This was around the time that my mother and I began to make the transition between living in Washington, and living in Oregon. I remembered going down with her on business, interviewing for different jobs, and on one particular occasion (the one that, indeed, solidified the plan to move) I was accompanied by three things: Jones Crushed Melon soda, Steve Martin’s The Pleasure of My Company, and Give Up. It was a beautiful March afternoon, and somehow, I began to allow myself to accept leaving Washington, and everything I’d ever known, in my 14 years of life. It was a scary point in time, but there were Ben and Jimmy, who taught me to accept these things, even though it was never their intention.
This obsession with The Postal Service, of course, lead to a thorough obsession with Death Cab for Cutie, due to my profound adoration of Gibbard’s voice and words. I jumped from Give Up to Transatlanticism, and then learned every single inch of that record, right down to the length of time where he lets his s’s trail off. If you asked me now, “Why were you so obsessed with those records?” I wouldn’t honestly be able to tell you. It is possible that, from an incredibly young age, I wanted badly to be a romantic, and in turn to relate to the loss of love, and these records allowed me to live vicariously through them. I poured over the lovelorn ways that he told me, “I am finally seeing, I was the one worth leaving,” or narrating the death of a relationship: “This is the moment that you know / that you told her that you love her, but you don’t.” There was a sort of heartbreaking bravery in these songs, and better still, these revelations were sung in the most conversational way possible, constantly bucking the notion of typical lyrical structure to benefit his own desires: it’s hard not to marvel at the gall he had to open a song with the line “The glove compartment is inaccurately named, and everyone knows it.” Who does this guy think he is? It didn’t matter that I couldn’t truly relate to these constant emotional damages. To me, they were close enough to real life.
Before I got married, I dated a girl who shared my sick obsession with this man’s music. We bonded over our obsession with Gibbard’s words, and in this way, it somehow changed the cellular structure of this sorrow. It somehow fueled our love, knowing that, deep down, we both understood the heartbreak of another person. We poured over every inch of these records together, building a strange narrative, in which these songs tell a complete story, and tell an even fuller story when combined with We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, and the criminally underrated Plans. To this day, I really don’t understand what we got out of this, but this was a bond that I was incredibly grateful for. For months afterwards, I found it impossible to listen to this music without connecting it to the happier times I had experienced. Finally, I found a way to connect with those words. The tragic irony is, just a month later, they would release Narrow Stairs, and I have to wonder if our relationship would have been stretched out a few months longer if we’d gotten to obsess over that one.
A decade later, I still love this music, and I likely always will. This was my first foray into the subtle art of living in someone else’s sadness, a tradition I have held dear since learning that I truly love the music that can only be called “sad bastard music.” I’ve forged my own memories with these songs, and tried to erase some of the sadness embedded in them. I even went as far as to recite the lyrics to “Brand New Colony” on my wedding day, as my own personal wedding vows. My wife still gives me grief for not bothering to write my own vows. But what does she know? I know that song well enough that they may as well be my own words. And, I’m sure if you ask me how I feel about these songs in another decade, I’m probably going to tell you the same thing.