Millennial Masterpieces #10: The Postal Service – [Give Up]

Welcome to Millennial Masterpieces, where I’ll look back at a great album released within the past 17 years and see what its legacy is. Tenth in the series is the sole offering from Ben Gibbard‘s indietronica side project The Postal Service, the preternaturally sad Give Up.

Released: February 19, 2003

There is only one Postal Service album.

There only needs to be one Postal Service album.

If there’s ever been a band that needed to specifically exist to create just one piece of work, it’s Ben Gibbard‘s and Jimmy Tamborello‘s early-2000s experiment. It’s a one-off that can’t be replicated, no matter how hard Owl City tries. The two men famously snail-mailed each other their respective parts of the songs, a borderline whimsical effort that helped add to the album’s mythic status. Can you imagine if they tried that again? It would be unbearably contrived. It’s a snapshot of a specific moment in time, almost literally.

The album seems to take place on some fateful day between 9:00 PM and 6:00 AM, following Gibbard as he paces back and forth his apartment frantically before lying sleepless in bed until his melancholy thoughts finally subside. It’s a collection of painful memories interspersed with bleary-eyed realizations; the album cover acts as a fitting final image for the loosely strung together story.

Though it was released in early winter of 2003, it was undoubtedly informed by the autumn air of September-December 2002. This is indeed Instagram filter music. Except there was no Instagram in the halcyon days of ’03. There was no tumblr. There was very little in terms of online art communities, which is a shame because this is a record designed for “online art communities”. It’s all faded polaroid Boho aesthetic, every other lyric a caption tailor-made for PostSecret. While the blips and bloops and bedroom beats of the album accurately sketch the world of Give Up, it’s Gibbard’s resigned sighs that paint that world. Lines like “Everything looks perfect from far away”, “Now I am finally seeing/Why I was the one worth leaving” and “I watch the patchwork farm/ slow fade into the ocean’s arms” surely adorned art students’ dorm room walls across the country that year.

Fifty Shades of Sad would be an accurate alternate title for this thing. From the wistful Brian Eno-ish “Recycled Air” to the bleak grey that is “This Place is a Prison”, every song exists on one end of the emotional spectrum. Even the euphoric headphone-ping-pong of “Such Great Heights” is imbued with a sense of impending loss. It’s nowhere near dreary, but this is not a record to listen to on a road trip with friends. Luckily the instrumental backbone keeps everything from getting bogged down, and nearly every track features some nice orchestral work that offsets Gibbard’s plaintive tone.

The album’s crown jewel is the heartbreaking “Nothing Better”, a duet between Gibbard and Jen Wood that lays out a painfully honest break-up in the most nuanced way possible. It allows for the separation to be seen from two lenses simultaneously, with the opposing sides sometimes even overlapping just like in a real conversation. The song’s filled with little intricacies like that, like the string flourishes that unfurl when Wood comes into the picture. It lets both grief and scrutiny coexist in a way that doesn’t make either character a villain. Gibbard’s pleading doesn’t come off as maudlin, and Wood’s facts aren’t cold or harsh. It’s a realistic look at the truth behind failing relationships: they hurt a lot, and you can’t stop the ending no matter how bad you want to.

The deluxe 10-year anniversary edition of Give Up makes the best case for why the world only needed one Postal Service record. It featured two new tracks: “A Tattered Line of String” and “Turn Around”. Both were very good- the former excellent in fact- but they stuck out like sore thumbs amid the reserved melancholia of the album proper. They were too clean, too polished, and too strong. 2002 Ben Gibbard was a bookish underground hero still finding his footing in the world. 2013 Ben Gibbard was a Frontman with a capital F. His very persona had become a style thanks to a certain teen TV soap opera. These two iterations might as well have been different people, and it’s blatantly obvious. A second Postal Service album would lack the inherent mood that essentially defined Give Up and only dilute its legacy. As Gibbard so clearly elucidated on this album– sometimes it’s better to just let go.

Top Three Tracks: “Nothing Better”, “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”, “This Place is a Prison”