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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Postal Service: "Give Up"

You know that pivotal scene in "Garden State" where Natalie Portman's character shows Zach Braff's character a song by The Shins? She says, "You gotta hear this one song, it'll change your life I swear," and it literally does set into motion a chain of events that changes his life completely. That is exactly how I feel about The Postal Service's Give Up, an album that changed my life and my perception of what good music is, and what it could be.

If you've read my musings before, you're undoubtedly aware of the story of how I first heard this album. Driving with a friend during Spring Break 2004 (whoo!), he puts in this CD and begins playing "Nothing Better." Jimmy Tamborello's bellish synth sound reminds me of when Mario collects a coin, and being the huge video game nerd that I am, that won me over entirely. It was the first time I had heard Ben Gibbard's perfect (album) voice, perfectly complemented not only by Tamborello's flawless composition, but Jen Wood's sugary-sweet vocals. I semi-dated/saw/hung out/got complicated with this girl that very same year and this became our unofficial "song." She would sing Jen's lines and I would sing Ben's. It was cheesy, but it was good times.

That whole Spring Break I poured over this album. I remember waking up in the morning, walking over to my CD player, pressing play, and then going back to bed where I would lie down, close my eyes and just take it in. The first track, "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" still gives me goosebumps when the music starts and Ben softly croons, "Smeeeeared blaaaack ink," practically reaching out through the speakers and pulling me in. It's slow, meandering start makes its uptempo ending all the more exciting, bringing a smile to my face almost always. It's outdone on the album, only by the modern pop classic, "Such Great Heights," a song whose lyrics, composition, and performances all achieve a perfection that - up until that time - I had never thought possible. Sure, Iron & Wine totally killed the whole carefree, lovey-dovey vibe that this song had going for it, but if anything it makes you appreciate the original that much more.
Of course, it's not all hugs and kisses. Songs like "Sleeping In" and "This Place is a Prison" show Gibbard taking on a more realistic, less romantic world view. The former song's lyrics are, again, one of the album's high points.  "This Place is Prison" is definitely the lowest point on Give Up, particularly because of it's lack of energy, though that doesn't keep it from being an interesting listen at all.  When listened to in the context of the album, it's a welcomed change of pace and tone.  "Natural Anthem" is also a bit different from the rest of the songs.  The longest track on the album, it begins with a solemn violin loop before adding more layers that I can count.  Gibbard doesn't even start singing until the 4 minute mark, and by that time, his voice is the last thing you'd expect to hear from the song.  It sounds almost foreign, but as always, it's particularly lovely.

And what would a review of Give Up be without mention of its two most-romantic songs, "Clark Gable" and "Brand New Colony?"  "Gable" tells the story of how Ben grabs a few friends, a camera, and a van, and tries to create the perfect love scene.  Why?  Because he's "been waiting since birth to find a love that would look and sound like the movies."  It's a charming song, to be sure, with one of Tamborello's most toned-down compositions on the album.  It never gets in the way, or steps out of line.  "Brand New Colony" is entirely different, containing more Mario-esque synths and one of the most recognizable starting melodies ever.  Here, Gibbard speaks of his desire to take his lover and start a brand new colony where "everything will change."  Jenny Lewis lends her vocals to that line, repeating it beautifully and subtly (Jenny Lewis, subtle?  There's a first!) as she harmonizes with Gibbard.  It is probably the most beautiful moment on the album, which is saying a lot for such a glorious record.

In hindsight, the impact that this album has made on me is clear.  Whether or not that has an influence on how I feel about it is debatable, though I think this is definitely a record that can stand on its own merits.  Though saying it changed my life may sound like an extreme exaggeration, it really has changed so much about my thoughts, tastes, and opinions on the art form.  I didn't even know what indie music was, or even heard of it, until I listened to Give Up.  I hesitate to say that it is my favorite album of all time, though if one were to point a gun to my head and demand an answer, this one probably would flow off the tongue easier than anything else.  The bottom line is that Give Up is a very important album, not only for me, but for indie and electronic music in general.  In my opinion, it is an album without flaw or missteps, one that should undoubtedly be considered a massive achievement in music, and one that I've not grown tired of yet.  Only time will tell if the album remains a favorite of mine, but for right now it's just as magical and beautiful as ever.  That works for me.

Key Tracks:
1. "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight"
2. "Such Great Heights"
3. "Nothing Better"
4. "We Will Become Silhouettes"
5. "Brand New Colony"

10 out of 10 Stars


Anonymous said...

I have been waiting for this one. I figured you would do it before the 1st.

Cale said...

When I came up with idea for Retro Reviews, this album was the only album I ever wanted to do one for. I figured now would be the most appropriate time for it, and it felt good to finally write.