It was an unseasonably warm February day in 2005. I was a senior in high school, and my long-distance girlfriend had just made the three-hour trip between our homes for the first time. After a day of giddy, aimless drives and watching Napoleon Dynamite for probably the tenth time, we sat in her car for a few final minutes of privacy from my nosy gaggle of sisters. As we sat down, she casually said, “I think I want to listen to the Postal Service,” and put the (likely burned) CD of Give Up into the stereo of her Saturn Ion.
I had no point of reference for what happened next. I had briefly heard Death Cab For Cutie, but the crisp electronic drums and synthesizers made my brain lump Give Up into the broad, misused category of “Techno,” but it was typically mechanical, repetitive, and inhuman. This shared some of the same sounds as what I had heard before, but the Postal Service used that robotic sonic palette to create songs that were deeply moving. The songs unfolded in dramatic narratives, thanks to both Ben Gibbard’s carefully crafted lyricism and Jimmy Tamborello’s mastery of synthetic instruments (listen to his project Dntel for a more complete picture of just how much of the credit Tamborello deserves for these soundscapes). The way that these keyboards and drum machines were augmented by punctuations of real instruments was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. The fact that the songs were written remotely might seem unremarkable now, but the mythos of Gibbard and Tamborello sending the songs back and forth via snail mail was considered an essential part of understanding the record (and their name, duh).
Of course, it wasn’t wholly without antecedents. I lacked the context to wholly understand what was happening at the time, but the familiarity of two decades of constant replays (and a lot of catching up on earlier pop music history) has revealed the inspirations lurking under the electronic sheen. There are glimmers of the Cure’s bittersweet popcraft, the Flaming Lips’ duality of wry irony and unabashed earnestness (also seen on The Postal Service’s B-side cover of “Suddenly Everything Has Changed“), a blend of disco and punk ethos borrowed from New Order and Depeche Mode, and the intricate reappropriation of dance music forms of Aphex Twin that would be pretentiously called “IDM,” or “intelligent dance music.”
But what made this often alien soundscape hospitable was the ever-calm voice of Ben Gibbard as he delivered his trademark bookish lyricism—itself an heir of Scottish indie pioneers Belle & Sebastian. Gibbard acts as a sort of tour guide through isolated parties, sleepy airplane rides, and Seattle recontextualized as a penitentiary. He debates with a romantic candidate in a deceptively cheerful duet (a spiritual sequel to “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League). He flits between unflappable aloofness and hyper-magnified sentimentality without notice. He likens a new relationship to a pilgrimage to an idealized New World to escape the persecution of the haters. Global warming is played down as a reward for being good citizens. Nuclear fallout is treated with the same annoyance as a particularly bad rainstorm, his boredom as great a danger as the radiation poisoning. He retreads the memory of a former romance as a movie set, filling both the role of leading man and director.
We might not have heard these elements combined like this at the time, but they’ve been copied ad nauseum by others. Homestar even parodied it in an “indie-tronic remix.” But no amount of aping by Owl City and their ilk can dull Give Up. Twenty years later, it hasn’t lost any of its breathtaking sheen. The intricate layers of electronics are just as inventive and fresh. Gibbard’s lyrics remain as charming and moving as the first time we heard them. It’s defied the need for a follow-up, remaining just as satisfying now as it was upon its release. It’s been a close companion through the years—I would burn a copy for my now wife shortly after we became friends. It was one of the first ten records I bought when I started collecting records. Iron & Wine’s cover of “Such Great Heights” (available on the second disc of that vinyl edition) has gone on many a mix I’ve made. “This Place Is a Prison” was a staple of my solo acoustic days. I have a familiarity with these nine songs that very few other records have matched.
And still, through the hundreds of plays I’ve given it through the last two decades, it remains timeless. Whether it’s by the already-retro tones utilized in its arrangements or the universal intimacy of Gibbard’s lyrics, it hasn’t aged a single day since its release—even if its listeners decidedly have.