Give Up is a marriage of opposites. It’s heart-and-head-and-belly singing overtop disembodied, synthesized musical tirades; stabs at authenticity amid the cool play of artifice; the rain-soaked lushness of Seattle by way of the sun-blistered, oil-slicked motorways of L.A. And most of all, it’s the fast-moving technological potential of laptop computers, CD burners and MP3s as shared via the good, old-fashioned United States Postal Service.
Yep: snail mail is what brought Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie, All-Time Quarterback) and Jimmy Tamborello (Dntel, Figurine) together; the duo exchanged computer-generated beats and vocal samples like old-fashioned pen pals sharing precious memoirs from their hometowns. And in a way, they were—each contributor gave something of himself to this project, as well as pushed the other to grow and shift dynamically. The result is 10 songs that traverse miles in a single bar, mix genres to a startling effect, make you wanna dance and/or cry.
The throwbacks to ‘80s synth/new wave are unmistakable, but hardly render Give Up your run-of-the-mill retro revival. Quite the opposite: like any worthy match, the coming together gives each aspect assets that they’d be wont to find otherwise, the eletroclashy bursting with depth and the indie-croon thankfully adrenalized. And even its base forms are something other than derivative. Kicking off the disc is an obvious example in “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”. Opening with a digitized dirge offset by syncopated twitches, Gibbard’s natural tenor comes in clear and plain as day, almost as if he found the wrong song. But what is at first a bit surprising soon becomes intriguing, then mesmerizing. Diaphanous female vocals seep in from nowhere, like sweet perfume filling a room, and the whirr of beats doubles its frequency and doubles again, popping with a motion-inducing vitality. It’s pure hypnosis: the relentless complex of beats paired with threadbare, simple highly emotive singing produces a dizzying effect. “I am finally seeing/ why I was the one worth leaving,” Gibbard pines loosely over the intricate weave that makes the song’s core. Maybe it’s new wave, but it’s also healthfully twee, with a rev of dance thrown in for good measure.
This trick repeats itself on the album, for sure, but with enough modification—across the electronic as well as emotional panorama—to make any listener not want to . . . err, give up. The hook is also in the lyrical work; Gibbard wears you-name-the-organ on you-name-the-article-of-clothing, and spends much of the album wallowing in his own self-reflection (and sometimes, self-pity). While he speaks of love (who doesn’t?), he also contemplates fame, history, friendship, and trust in lines so acute it does them no justice to repeat them; his observations package a world of deliberation in their simplicity. True, there are a few instances where this approach to lyricism falls into saccharine clichés, as it does on “Sleeping In” (JFK assassination/youthful dreams dashed/ what’s the meaning in my life yadda yadda), but overall, the takeaway is sincerity, not schmaltz. Another favorite: “Nothing Better”, its ear-splitting tingles bouncing against broken-hearted words. This song features more female vocals in a bona fide duet (with Jen Wood, formerly of Tattle Tale) and manages to remain bright, despite its cheerless theme (ending relationship/ unrequited love/ saying goodbye). “Clark Gable” is another intoxicator, rushing headlong as if rhythm were reproductive or singing could save a life.
We’re finding mergers of this stripe more and more often (Erlend Oye of Kings of Convenience finding his gentle vocals re-modulated by Royskopp to give just one example) and Gibbard and Tamborello are hardly the first band to be inspired by the ‘80s and all its synthy gems. Still, there’s something about The Postal Service that sounds not only historically significant and up to date, but also prescient. Theirs is an artful musical calculus, one that integrates the human and the humanoid to give soundtrack to the disconnected, yet earnest escapades of contemporary emotional life. Thanks to the Postal Service (and the U.S. one to boot) the future has found its tradition, and technology finally has a soul.
// Notes from the Road
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