[11 February 2005]
If you follow indie rock at all, then surely you’re aware of the Postal Service. They’ve been christened with the very contradictory-sounding title of Indie-Rock Supergroup. This quiet and dreamy electronic outfit is collaboration between Jimmy Tamborello, the electronic maestro behind Dntel and Figure; Ben Gibbard, the singer and guitarist from Death Cab for Cutie; and, occasionally, Jenny Lewis, lead singer of Rilo Kiley. Their 2003 debut, Give Up, was a huge success, bolstered by the strength of the first two singles, “Such Great Heights” and “The District Sleeps Tonight”. (In fact, it’s the second best-selling record in Sub Pop history, behind Nirvana’s Bleach.) Driven by warm synthesizers, subtle and soft electronic beats, and crisp, sweet, melodic vocals, the album is an emotionally engaging and artistically impressive effort by a very talented group of musicians.
The Postal Service’s latest release is the third single from the album, “We Will Become Silhouettes”, accompanied by a new song, “Be Still My Heart”, as well as two remixes of tracks from Give Up (“We Will Become Silhouettes” and “Nothing Better”). Unlike a lot of CD single releases, We Will Become Silhouettes, though made up of only about 15 minutes of music, actually works as a short song suite, rather than feeling like a random assemblage of filler material to bolster the title track.
“We Will Become Silhouettes”, like the other Postal Service singles, is a coolly pulsing electronic dreamscape, a delicate dance of blips, harmonies, and cut-up instrumental tracks. The verses drive along coolly, pushed by a thumping beat and a bright electric piano, as Gibbard, sounding deceptively sweet, paints a nightmare vision of the world outside his door: “I wanted to walk through the empty streets / and feel something constant under my feet, / but all the news reports recommended that I stay indoors / because the air outside will make our cells / divide at an alarming rate until our shells / simply cannot hold all our insides in, / and that’s when we’ll explode / (and it won’t be a pretty sight).”
In the chorus, however, the singer and his apparently departed lover, embodied by Lewis’s beautiful backing vocals, attain transcendence. Over a swirling bed of bright, jewel-like electronic white noise that lifts the track into the stratosphere, Gibbard and Lewis intone, “We’ll become / silhouettes when our bodies finally go.” With typical Postal Service idealism, separation and death can be overcome by cosmic escape. What makes this band interesting, however, is the dark edge that accompanies their sweetness. In “Silhouettes” Gibbard escapes the nightmare city, but only due to a deus ex machine scene of weightless souls drifting up into a skyscape of immortality.
“Be Still My Heart”, the new song included on this CD single, presents a similar dynamic of hopefulness tinged by black humor. The song tells the story of a love affair just beginning. Gibbard’s character is floating on cloud nine recalling the night before with his love, only to be overcome by a paranoid fall from grace. Musically, the chorus soars high into the air like that of “We Will Become Silhouettes”, but is undercut by the singer’s uncertainty about the future: “And I thought, / Be still my heart / this could be a brand new start, with you. / And it will be clear / If I wake up and you’re still here with me in the morning.” Over a soaring and climbing synthesizer riff, Gibbard gives a rather bleak assessment of the chances of true love. The sincerity with which he hopes for a brand new start stands out starkly next to the sad realization that the next morning could prove that it was all for nothing. Love exists if his partner’s there in the morning—certainly not much to hang your hat on.
The Postal Service’s emerging catalog consistently provides this contradictory and ironic tension in their music. Without those hints of bleakness and cynicism, this music would drown in its own effervescence and sweetness. Gibbard and Lewis have the most adorable and ebullient voices you’ll ever hear, and Tamborello brings the sonic acuteness of Brian Eno, but is more joyful than the dour electronic granddaddy. Without the lyrical and emotional tug of war, these songs would be, well, too bright and chirpy and earnest to be interesting. At the same time, however, unlike Radiohead, the Postal Service is able to go electronic without going technophobic and cyborg-esque.
Is We Will Become Silhouettes a necessary supplement to Give Up? Probably not, since the title track, pulled straight from the album, is the strongest song of the set. The inclusion of “Be Still My Heart”, as well as two remixes of Give Up cuts will be of interest to fans, but not to newcomers. In any event, this release indicates that the Postal Service are an important and worthy band in the indie-rock world. As far as side projects go, the Postal Service has to rank as one of the most worthwhile.