When it was released in 2003, nobody expected The Postal Service’s first—and as it turns out, only—album, Give Up, to gate-crash the mainstream the way it did. For those closely following Death Cab For Cutie in the wake of 2001’s relatively rocking The Photo Album, it seemed especially lark-like: Singer-guitarist Ben Gibbard, on the precipice of making even bigger things happen with that band, decided to make an electro-pop record with his buddy, Jimmy Tamborello of Dntel. It was the very definition of a side project for a guy who would soon find huge commercial success with the band he had poured his heart into for six years.
By most accounts, including his own, Gibbard always considered The Postal Service a distant second fiddle to Death Cab. And what happened in the 10 years after Give Up’s release bear that out: The Postal Service toured small venues for a couple of months, then Gibbard returned to the Death Cab fold as that band continued its ascent, which spiked in a big way with Transatlanticism, released just eight months later. As Give Up gained popularity over the years—it’s now certified platinum, and it’s Sub Pop Records’ second-biggest album ever, behind only Nirvana’s Bleach—there was chatter about a follow-up, but it never materialized. Only now, with the release of a deluxe anniversary edition, has the band decided to play more shows. And what a difference a decade makes: The Postal Service’s first and only Chicago show was in April of 2003 at the 550-capacity Abbey Pub; this August, it’s one of the top-billed acts at Lollapalooza, where it’ll be watched by tens of thousands.
Why did Give Up make its slow-motion splash? Certainly Death Cab’s rising popularity raised its profile—and each band’s popularity helped the other’s—but it comes down to the songs. They seemed at first to be sort of deliberately goofy, almost a glib reaction to the deserved perception of Gibbard as a maudlin songwriter who was at his best describing the bitter or bittersweet ends of relationships, not their great heights. He clearly felt fewer boundaries with The Postal Service; perhaps Tamborello’s intricate-yet-accessible bloops and beeps inspired a sunnier side. That’s certainly true on the album’s biggest single, “Such Great Heights,” which is so sunny and romantic it made audiences wonder if Gibbard was being sarcastic. “I have to speculate / that God himself did make us into corresponding shapes / like puzzle pieces from the clay” isn’t the type of lyric anyone was used to hearing him sing at the time.
Tamborello and Gibbard wrote an incredible batch of songs together via mail—hence the name—and those songs have stood the test of time. The new deluxe edition of Give Up includes a pair of Postal Service covers, commissioned back then as B-sides, that bear this out: James Mercer of The Shins and Sam Beam of Iron And Wine pull off acoustic versions of “We Will Become Silhouettes” and “Such Great Heights,” respectively, and each proves that the songs pass the ultimate test—even relieved of their catchy accoutrements, they sound classic. A Gibbard-solo acoustic version of “Recycled Air,” also included in the extras, offers further proof.
But back to the versions of these songs that America, or at least some portion thereof, fell in love with. What in the context of 2003 sounded almost deliberately anachronistic and reactionary now sounds timeless. The hushed opening chords of “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” give way to hisses, clicks, sampled strings, and gorgeous harmonies from Gibbard and Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, who—though not an official member—is a key ingredient on many tracks. “Silhouettes” takes similar components—electronic drum trills, synth-y bass, sweetly simple vocal lines—into similarly fantastic places.
And though the undercarriage of every track on Give Up is electronic, it’s fully grounded in more organic sounds as well. Gibbard’s voice is a large part of this, but the guitars that accompany it are also more prevalent than you may remember. The extended outro to “Sleeping In” is all about a very New Order-like guitar line, as is the shuffling ballad “Recycled Air.” (Those guitar tracks were all in the family, recorded by Death Cab guitarist Chris Walla at Death Cab’s studio, Hall Of Justice.) And some of the lyrics on Give Up rank with Gibbard’s best, particularly on the swooshing “Clark Gable,” about an amateur filmmaker obsessed with re-creating the best times of a relationship gone bad. (“I want so badly to believe / that there is truth, that love is real / And I want life in every word / to the extent that it’s absurd,” he sings, while some of you gag but some of you absolutely get it.)
The only thing missing from this grandly deluxe edition of Give Up is the genesis of The Postal Service. The collaboration began casually with Gibbard contributing vocals to the Dntel track “(This Is) The Dream Of Evan And Chan,” from 2001’s Life Is Full Of Possibilities; it’s the best Postal Service song that isn’t actually one, and it would’ve made a nice addition to the two solid new tracks included here, “A Tattered Line Of String” and “Turn Around.” It’s a minor quibble in the digital age, though, since anyone can make their own Give Up playlist, to which you might even add the puzzling-but-effective cover of Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds” that originally appeared on the soundtrack to the Josh Hartnett vehicle Wicker Park. That song—or the title at least—pretty well describes Give Up: There was no real reason it should’ve succeeded so heartily, especially considering that one of its two principal players was solidly dedicated to something else. And, against the odds—and Gibbard’s proclamations to the contrary—The Postal Service has been resurrected, for now anyway.