Do We Need A Postal Service Reunion?
The electronic indie duo are back together after a decade for a new tour, and maybe a second album. It might be worth the wait, but I'm still trying to figure out the first record.
Ten years ago, Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello made a record, named it Give Up, pushed it out into the world, and then walked away. It's easy to imagine them as movie bad guys, sauntering in slow-mo toward the camera, unblinking as the big-rig they just jacked ka-booms into a fireball behind them. This spring, though, The Postal Service is taking a long look back: They're reuniting for a tour, headlining summer festivals, re-releasing Give Up with 15 bonus tracks of B sides and live takes. Maybe they'll finally turn out the second record fans have spent a decade crossing fingers for — and maybe it'll even be worth the wait. But I'm still over here trying to figure out the first one.
In late 2003, around the time I left home for college, one of my best friends from high school gave me a burned copy of Give Up, the silver CD-R decorated with neon Sharpie ink. It was a crucial transaction, impeccably timed, although neither of us could have known it then. I took my entire CD collection with me to school that fall, hundreds of discs tucked neatly into the massive Belkin case I stashed under my new twin bed, but that first semester it was The Postal Service I reached for over and over again, the album a balm for my newly fledged nerves.
All throughout high school, the idea of college had shone like a beacon at the end of a long, dank tunnel, beckoning me forward with its wild promises of intellectual and social transcendence. But once I arrived on campus, plastered my musty dorm room with Rushmore and Bob Dylan posters, and registered for the classes I'd been daydreaming about all summer, I was shocked to find myself not entirely happy. I was hundreds of miles away from my family, my friends, and my boyfriend, and wrestling with anxiety problems I wouldn't recognize or tend to for years. These were pretty standard growing pains, but at the time it all seemed entirely unique unto me. I felt disoriented, untethered, alien — so alien, in fact, that I dressed as an alien that Halloween, wearing a sparkly silver antennae and a T-shirt across which I'd written, in glow-in-the-dark puff paint, "I am a visitor here." I realized later that showing up to a huge campus Halloween party dressed as an earnest personal metaphor was probably not the best way to feel less alone, but such was the state of my life at the time.
The line I rendered in puff paint came from "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight," a song from Give Up that had recently become my secret personal theme music. Gibbard sang of feeling out of place in the new life of his old love, and I borrowed his words to voice my loneliness even as I tried desperately to avoid heartbreak of my own. My boyfriend and I had been together for nearly a year, but I had no idea how our new 120-mile separation might wear us down. "I want so badly to believe / That there is truth, that love is real," went the dreamily urgent "Clark Gable," and I clung to the lines like a prayer. Give Up was so concerned with the viability of love in the modern age, I think, because Gibbard recognized how incredibly fragile the modern age really is: "Sleeping In" mocks the shrugging acceptance of global warming ("people thought they were just being rewarded"), and "We Will Become Silhouettes" imagines love in the time of nuclear holocaust. I was pretty wrapped up in myself, but not so tight that I couldn't fit in these big-picture worries too.
Give Up understood the heartbreaking geometry of distance because it was a product itself of distance, pieced together by Gibbard and Tamborello via recordings mailed back and forth until something whole seemed to emerge. Gibbard's general mood slid between wistful and maudlin, but Tamborello kept the darkness at bay, layering together complex textures from recognizable instruments — acoustic guitar here, piano there — and amorphous electronic elements that I had literally heard nothing like before. Often during those first months at school I would curl up on my too-small bed and hit play and just let the record burble and hum over me. The effect was downright womblike — warm, pulsing, weightless, a primal sort of comfort.
For a while, the only other people I knew who knew or cared about the record were my friends from back home. They all had their own Sharpie'd up CD-Rs too, our copies all littermates in an illegal brood — something about Give Up just begged to be passed along hand-to-hand like this, and anyway our nonexistent budgets trumped our consumer ethics. When I hit play, I liked to think my friends were all hitting play too, all of us in our little dorm rooms hundreds of miles apart. "When you scan the radio / I hope this song will guide you home," Gibbard sang on "Such Great Heights" — yes, just like that, I thought. Listening to Give Up filled me with the same sense of relief as when I saw one of my old friends' screen names pop up on my Buddy List — or maybe I just associate the record with AIM because it provided me with so many away messages. "Don't wake me, I plan on sleeping in" was my go-to for Saturday and Sunday mornings, and I got a depressing amount of mileage from "now we can swim any day in November" as a balmy Southern autumn crept in.
Toward the end of the semester, though, something shifted. I'm not sure if it was some sort of finals week–induced Stockholm syndrome or just the simple passage of time, but I began to feel more and more of a connection to my less-and-less-new life at school. When I returned to campus after Christmas break, Give Up slowly drifted out of my regular rotation. It was as if the songs had been my emotional training wheels and was I suddenly cruising on two rims all on my own.
But even with the CD convalescing in its Belkin sleeve, I couldn't quite escape the album. I didn't need the songs anymore, but the rest of the world was just catching on. In the fall there was Garden State and the Iron & Wine cover of "Such Great Heights"; there were song placements in other movies, TV shows, in-store Muzak channels, wedding playlists, party mixes. My reaction to the band's popularity spike probably looked like the typical early-adopter superiority complex, but my frustrations were more practical: Every time a song from the album popped up — in a friend's car, on the produce aisle — I felt ambushed, kidnapped back to fall 2003. Even after I graduated and moved on to the next disorienting phase of my life, the songs still held sway over me. This might explain why I've never really gotten into Death Cab for Cutie; the very suggestion of Gibbard's voice and his endless romantic woe is often enough to send me right back to that musty dorm room, that tiny twin bed, my mother on the other end of the phone saying, "You know, Rachael, you don't have to call us every day."
Knowing that the upcoming reunion would probably force a reckoning anyway, the other day I sat down with Give Up to give it a deliberate listen for the first time in years. I considered trying to approach it as if for the first time, but then figured that would be useless — there's just too much history between us, like an old friend you can only ever understand as the person they were when you first met. But, hearing it again, I'm shocked by how much I loved the album — not for any aesthetic reasons, but simply because it seems like before I was never really hearing it. In college, I played the CD-R on my dinky boom box or piped it through my laptop speakers via some old pair of headphones, probably the same pair that came with my Discman years before. Of all the things in my life that are different now, apparently it was the acquisition of some decent noise-canceling behemoths that most altered the way I understand the record. I was almost literally experiencing the record with new ears. I noticed, for the first time, the warm crackle that suffuses the whole album, like a needle tracking a dusty LP just before the first song begins; I felt the skittery sonar pings of "Such Great Heights" rolling around in my skull like ball bearings. Even "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight," my old cri de coeur, seemed suddenly alien — hey, did you know Jenny Lewis sings on the track? Yeah, I knew too. It just took me 10 years to hear for myself.
In late January, when news about The Postal Service reunion began to spread online, I watched to see who among my friends and internet stalkees would jump to register their excitement. I shouldn't have been surprised that the ones who seemed most enthusiastic were all folks around my age, all of us on the raw cusp of adulthood when Give Up was first released. We're not who we were when we first fell in love with the album — we're long out of school, all creeping toward our thirties now, the trappings of adult life slowly settling in around us. (That boyfriend I had freshman year? Reader, I married him.) But it took so little to spark glowing reminiscences these 10 songs and the road trips and dance parties and sing-alongs and study breaks and weird nights alone they soundtracked for us. I found comfort in this, seeing all the ways the record fit into all these other lives, all the different ways it could be beautiful and useful. For all of us who clung to Give Up back then, a reminder of the record's age is a reminder of our own — surely all these things just happened yesterday? Last week, at the latest? Don't mistake this for nostalgia; not everything looks perfect from far away, no matter what Ben Gibbard says. But here again is this record doing what it has always done best — collapsing distance, collapsing time, dragging us backward, and pushing us forward and all in the same swift blow.