Give In, Give Out, “Give Up”

Whatever this means, I like it.

And I think, given 1) the abrasiveness of my last post and 2) my ongoing effort to write more regularly, it’s time for me to talk a little about one of my favorite albums, the Postal Service’s lo-fi electronica classic (and only album, though one could argue that “(This Is) The Dream Of Evan And Chan” is also a Postal Service song), “Give Up.”

teenage lovers between the sheets

I don’t remember the first time I listened to the Postal Service, but I do remember that the first song I heard by the duo, comprised of Ben Gibbard (aka ex-Mr. Zooey Deschanel and the ringleader behind Death Cab for Cutie) and Jimmy Tamborello (aka Dntel), was “Nothing Better.”

I always get a kick out of male/female vocal duets (heteronormativity aside, the contrast between gendered timbres generally sounds pleasing, even if the lyrics aren’t romantic)–see “Empire Ants” by Gorillaz and Little Dragon.

Damon Albarn and Yukimi Nagano aren’t singing about a romantic connection, but just by the merits of the song and their vocal qualities, the song is richer. Mmm, I love that song.

ANYWAY. Tangent aside (although maybe I should write about “Plastic Beach” too, what a beautiful yet divisive album), male/female vocal duets. “Nothing Better” has a common but compellingly relayed narrative, that breaks down the cracks in a relationship, with the initial singer reviving and revising the good parts of the relationship in order to try to convince his partner that there’s something left, that the potential future positive is too great to give up. The lady (vocalized by Jen Wood, of the alt group Tattle Tale), though, is having none of it, and she closes out the song with a scathing verse, eventually singing, “But you’ve had your chance so say goodbye / say goodbye.”

When I first heard that song, I empathized with the guy. Yeah. YEAH. Thankfully, I’ve gotten my head around a lot of stuff, and now when I listen to the song, both voices resonate with alternately troubled and resolute undertones. It’s a great song about a broken relationship, and it showcases the core of what makes the Postal Service such a great group: they make electronic music, but they never let the production (which is tight; when they heard “Natural Anthem,” my roommates both went “Wait who is this again?”) overshadow the intensely emotional qualities of their music.

I’m pretty sure most people know about the Postal Service because of “Some Great Heights,” which is one of those songs that sounds so good playing in cars (because the sound mix bounces between L/R, try it out if you haven’t already), and understandably so. The track soars, and Gibbard’s voice quavers with the spellbound devotion that characterizes so much of his music. Close your eyes, and even as the song trails off into a trailing pattern of electronic bips and boops, you’re still suspended in the air, languishing in the atmosphere even as the album comes back to earth on the appropriately somnolent (but more in a drugged than a tired way) “Sleeping In” (“Recycled Air” also has that same half-lidded effect).

we’ll give ourselves new names

“Such Great Heights” is an anomaly among the songs on “Give Up” because of its incessant cheerfulness. That’s not to say that there is no joy to be found on the rest of the album; songs like “Clark Gable,” “We Will Become Silhouettes,” and “Brand New Colony” have a brightness in their sound and lyrics. “Clark Gable” in particular has a robust (but never truly bombastic) production that fits the theme of the song–a romance fit for the silver screen.

But these songs always sound so sad, and part of that is just Gibbard’s voice, which sounds like the humanized stylings of a pleading puppy, but a lot of this is due to the songwriting. Even when he’s not explicitly expressing sadness, there’s a melancholic, even morbid, shroud enveloping these songs. “We will become silhouettes when our bodies finally go”? Just because the song’s musical suffix is this cheery, bubbly synth line (with Jenny Lewis’s vocal and what seems to be a synth horn sprinkled throughout) does not mean that anyone’s shouting “Whoopee!” as the tune ends.

Now, this is not to say that this sadness/not sadness is a bad thing. “Brand New Colony” is one of my favorite songs, and not just because it sounds like something BMO from “Adventure Time” (aka my crack spirit guide) would jam out to. I especially love the lyrics in this tune, as Gibbard’s enterprising narrator lists the ways in which he wishes to protect and nurture his love. It’s all quite ~*cuUuUte*~, except for the part where he acknowledges that the only way “they” can be happy is to take off from “the cynics in this town” and “cut our bodies free.” Of course, all this is said with the most exquisite imagery and metaphor (seriously, snaps for you Benny boy), but Gibbard’s literary stylings and Tamborello’s upbeat production don’t account for the kind of dystopian vibe I personally get from the tune.

Whatever. BMO would dig it.

i was the one worth leaving

The main reason “Give Up” got as popular as it did is because everyone, at some point, gets sad about the fickle dance of romance (whether real or just wistfully imagined), and yeah, the songs on “Give Up” can be awfully awfully cute, but I can say with some degree of personal experience that the times I have felt the closest kinship with the singing soul on “Give Up” have been when I was down in the dumps, and that’s when “Give Up” gets me going again (despite the album’s name) (with the exception of the always dreary “This Place Is A Prison”) (“what does it take to get a drink in this place,” anyone?). In that vein, the album is bookended by two superb tracks that illustrate the depth of its (dis)content.

“The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” is a lyric heavy song about a guy visiting a former love and realizing that the relationship he had is all but gone; he’s a ghost, a visitor to someone who has a palpable existence. It’s an existentialist song, in that it ponders the nature of existence as an entity of memory and experience, and it’s also deeply, deeply lonely.

A general note: if you’ve been broken up with recently, this is the kind of song that’ll sear like a poker to the chest. That experience may be shocking and revolting–or it can be the catalyst that gets you started back on your feet. In other words, welcome to the album!

“Natural Anthem” is rather the opposite of “District.”

For instance, the song’s instrumental heavy; the instrumentation grinds away like Radiohead lite, but in a good way. It’s busy, it’s frenetic, it has an industrial quality that plays off of the fact that the rest of the album sounds as smooth as a retro future highway (think Tomorrowland, for a physical reference).

When the lyrics do kick in though, they stand really apart from the rest of the content on the album. Gibbard’s voice isn’t as at ease here, and its rounded vocal quality doesn’t quite mesh with the aforementioned instrumentation. And the words themselves are quite unique in the context of the album, as Gibbard dedicates a “natural anthem” (versus a national anthem) to someone who may or may not end up appreciating the effort. That ambiguousness, as well as Gibbard’s rather flippant final lyric (“but at least I spelt your name right”) changes the overall feel of the album.

This natural anthem, this portrait that Gibbard paints, is the denouement of what can be seen as a series of relationship-based vignettes, like “Paris je t’aime” without the surreal bits (side note: Elijah Wood as a vampire scared the shit out of me when I first watched that film, mainly because I still imagined him only as Frodo, so I was like “What the fuck is Frodo doing in this blue-hued urban fun house”). While the band’s name is in reference to the way the album was put together (with Gibbard and Tamborello mailing each other the song components), it can also be seen as an old-school romantic reference: to the love letter, a tradition that has eroded away into the Facebook and text messages that make up much of relationship-building (both romantically and socially) today.

“Give Up” hearkens back to that simpler time–just kidding, it was released in 2003. Yet despite the album’s general lyrical content and Gibbard’s romantic reputation, the album’s by no means a sentiment-baiting trap for teenaged sweethearts and loners; there’s a timelessness about each track, and especially about each track in relation to the others. “Give Up” is a complete album of musical portraits, stitched together by a shifting romantic narrative that alternates between the ecstasy of devotion and the agony of loss. It’s beautiful in a way that’s understated but understandable–because whatever happens, whatever doesn’t happen, the strongest memories hinge on simple moments removed from the usual cacophony. This is music for quiet times, for self reflection, for catharsis, and if you listen carefully, you might just hear, alongside the music, the ebb, the flow, the beating of your ever yearning heart.

(Image: Monotone Silence Symphony by Yves Klein, via likeafieldmouse)

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