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The Postal Service

Give Up (Deluxe 10th Anniversary Edition)

(Sub Pop; US: 9 Apr 2013; UK: 8 Apr 2013)

Does it seem like 10 years since Give Up first came out? Probably not, unless you were in on the ground floor with the Postal Service, picking up the album in the first few months after it was released in February of 2003. But the album was a slow burner that eventually became Sub Pop’s biggest hit record since Nirvana’s Bleach and gradually crept to platinum status, reaching the 1 million sold (in the U.S.) mark in October of 2012. But besides being a stealth hit, Give Up‘s synth-pop sound went on to influence a generation of new bands. This likely culminated (or hit its nadir, depending on your perspective) in Owl City’s 2009 mega-single “Fireflies”, which sounded like a teenager using his laptop to do an effective but sub-par imitation of The Postal Service. Which is pretty much what it was.


Anyway, to celebrate the 10th anniversary, Sub Pop is releasing this two-disc Deluxe Edition, complete with a “remastering” of all the album tracks, b-sides, and remixes, and adding two brand new Postal Service songs. If ever an album didn’t need remastering, it’s this one. The original tracks were recorded by Jimmy Tamborello and Ben Gibbard, who corresponded back and forth through the mail (hence the band name) until the songs sounded just like they wanted. There was no outside producer offering suggestions and no major label record company interfering with them. Consequently, if there’s any sonic variation between the original album and this edition, my non-audiophile ears can’t detect it. I even tried a track-by-track comparison and heard no difference.


Speaking of track-by-track, Give Up itself still sounds pretty damn great 10 years later. Gibbard’s fragile, subdued vocals mix perfectly with Tamborello’s warm electronic beats and programming. With Jenny Lewis on board for beautiful backing harmonies, nearly every song is a winner. Opener “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” sets the stage perfectly, as Gibbard’s lyrics find him gradually realizing that it was his fault a relationship ended. It’s immediately engaging to hear the way the song musically progresses from slow, quiet chords, a simple, stuttering beat, and electronic bleeps to synth-string arpeggios, churning dance beats, and a guitar solo on the outro. Then there’s “Such Great Heights”, one of the most perfect singles of the 00’s that never become a hit. The verses and chorus are equally hooky, and it’s guaranteed to put a smile on all but the grumpiest faces. The albums’s third single, “We Will Become Silhouettes”, features Gibbard’s recurring lyrical interest in sci-fi dystopias. The song is essentially a super-happy sounding description of a post-nuclear wasteland, where the survivors are confined to secure shelters for fear of spontaneously exploding if they venture outside.


This sci-fi angle is perhaps appropriate to the electronic feel of the album. There’s a pretty wide range between “Sleeping In”‘s cuddly description of a world where people thought that global warming was a reward for treating people with kindness (“Now we can swim any day in November”) and “This Place is a Prison”. The latter song originally felt like a dead spot on the album, but revisiting it now, Tamborello’s slow, oppressive, buzz-filled music works as a nice contrast to the bright chirpiness of the rest of the songs. Gibbard puts personal ennui into a macro setting, as he envisions the entire Seattle area as a vast incarceration for his own self-loathing. Even “Recycled Air”, which is about air travel, feels like a sci-fi concept when it’s married to the electronic music. The one time when Tamborello’s electronics overwhelm comes on album closer “Natural Anthem”, which still sounds like a mess of three or four different ideas shoved into one track, and an instance where Gibbard threw up his hands and said “I can’t write anything over the top of this.”


The non-sci-fi tracks mostly feature Gibbard singing about relationships, often with a hint of self-delusion. The hero of “Clark Gable” thinks that if he sets up and films a dramatic, classic movie kiss with an ex-lover that maybe his problems will be solved. The jaunty music makes you think he might actually have a shot. Then there’s “Nothing Better”. Maybe the highlight of the album among an album full of highlights, this full-on duet with Lewis is Gibbard’s lyrical triumph. He makes his feelings clear as he begs Lewis to give him yet another chance. Then Lewis cuts in and cuts through his every argument, “So let me help you remember / I’ve made charts and graphs that should finally make it clear / I’ve prepared a lecture / On why I have to leave.” Tamborello’s music is relatively spare here, letting the two vocalists take the spotlight as they argue back and forth. Of course, “Nothing Better” is marred slightly by Gibbard’s botched sports reference early on. “I will block the door like a goalie tending the net / In the third quarter / Of a tied-game rivalry.” I know Seattle doesn’t have an NHL team, but somebody should have told him somewhere along the way that hockey has periods, not quarters.


With the remastering essentially a non-issue, the second disc is probably where most fans will make their decision whether or not to buy this album again. Of the two new songs, “Turn Around” is the weaker. It sounds exactly like what you’d expect Gibbard and Tamborello to come up with after 10 years apart. It’s a perfectly accessible song that has all the hallmarks of the Postal Service but doesn’t really recapture that moment in time. It’s repetitive but the hooks, both electronic and melodic, aren’t catchy enough to mask its repetitiveness. Instead it sounds like a perfectly decent B-side, which puts it in good company with most of the rest of disc two. The other new track, “A Tattered Line of String”, is much more successful. Tamborello’s beats are harder and more dance-oriented, and Gibbard throws a little soul into his vocals for a change. This is a small but noticeable progression in the band’s sound, and it doesn’t feel like an attempt to replicate their earlier material.


The five B-sides on disc two are a mixed bag. “Be Still My Heart” has super-cheesy lyrics, but it’s also one of those subtle earworms that finds its way into the listener’s head and pops up a day later. “There’s Never Enough Time” doesn’t quite take off, as Gibbard sings quietly and never really comes up with a vocal melody to complement Tamborello’s programming. “Suddenly Everything Has Changed” is very solid, with a nice contrast between its jittery drumbeat and smooth vocal “ooh”‘s and “ahh”‘s. “Grow Old With Me” is dominated by Gibbard and is very pretty, but clearly a step down from the band’s best material. The highlight of the B-side section is the band’s cover of the 1984 Phil Collins hit “Against All Odds.” Tamborello’s arrangement of the song begins extremely spare, with just slow bass tones and quiet electric piano. This puts the focus directly on Gibbard’s aching, impassioned vocals. Even when the arrangement opens up, Tamborello keeps it sparse enough to let Gibbard retain the spotlight, and it’s absolutely the right choice.


The rest of the disc is filled with remixes and a pair of covers. The most interesting of these is the Styrofoam remix of “Nothing Better”, which messes with the backing music a lot, first adding fuzz to the synths, then slow distorted guitar chords when Lewis’s vocals come in. The remix continues to shift the music around under the vocals throughout the song. It’s in no way an improvement on the original, but it’s at least a version with some truly different ideas to share. John Tejada’s disco-y take on “Such Great Heights” adds nothing to the song. The DJ Downfall Persistent Beat Remix of “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” mostly strips the song of its quiet-to-loud aesthetic while adding a trance feel. And so it goes with the other remixes. Each is perfectly fine, but none is significant enough to make much of an impression.


There’s a nice solo acoustic take of “Recycled Air” with just Gibbard and an acoustic guitar. Iron and Wine attempts the same thing with his cover of “Such Great Heights”, but fails to make much of an impact. It’s exactly what you’d expect from Sam Beam circa 2004, and it falls somewhere on the middle of the “Such Great Heights” cover continuum. It’s not as good as the Ben Folds version, or as interesting as the Streetlight Manifesto take, but it’s certainly better than Confide’s absolutely embarrassing attempt. The Shins version of “We Will Become Silhouettes”, also from 2004, is kind of fascinating. The band essentially grafted the melody and lyrics of the song on top of the rhythm and bass line of their own song “Turn a Square.” Understandably, this makes “We Will Become Silhouettes” sound exactly like a Shins song.


Sub Pop and the Postal Service did a nice job of assembling the material for the second disc. The assortment of remixes avoids giving us endless takes of the same tracks. Die-hards will be happy to have all of the material in one place. Although in 2013, it’s not a stretch to assume that die-hards already have much of this stuff in one place: their computers and portable music players. Still, for those who don’t, the seven obscure/new tracks on disc two are definitely worth having.

Rating:

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The Postal Service - "A Tattered Line of String"
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