Synth pop is back, baby, and in a big way.
This is the year for the indie kids to tackle the genre, and so far the results are impressive. Coinciding with the notwist’s stateside release of the brilliant Neon Golden is Give Up, the first album from the Postal Service, a collaboration between Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard and Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello. The two hooked up in 2001 for Dntel’s EP The Dream of Evan and Chan and a song by the same name on Life is Full of Possibilities. The Postal Service is the next logical step for the Tamborello and Gibbard, as the ten songs on the debut album emphasize each of the individual’s strengths hinted at in their earlier work.
Gibbard’s appeal in Death Cab—or any other side project he participates in—is his fragile, inherently sad voice; he sounds like he might break down at any moment, and it works like gangbusters in the synth pop context. Gibbard’s vocals are nothing short of mesmerizing throughout, as he draws one in immediately and engages the listener from the opening lines of “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”. Guest vocalist Jen Wood sums up Gibbard’s charm best on “Nothing Better” when she coos “you have a lure I can’t deny” in a give-and-take about the dissolution of a relationship.
Meanwhile Tamborello eases up on the heavy atmospherics that marked Life is Full of Possibilities, instead creating a solid foundation that neither overshadows Gibbard’s voice nor merely serves as harmless background music. The synth beats and blips and beeps help shape the album’s personality, either lightening the mood on airy numbers like “Such Great Heights” and “Clark Gable” or suffusing a song with a dark (“This Place is a Prison”) or sad (“Nothing Better”) vibe. Tamborello again displays a bit of a vinyl fetish, adding record player crackles and snaps into the mix every so often to imitate the drop of a needle on vinyl.
Gibbard shows off his impressive ability to create a simple, beautiful melody on nearly all the tracks. After a few listens to the album one day, I found myself humming along to a tune in my head as I tried to go to sleep. Upon racking my brain to figure out just what the melody was from, I realize it was “Clark Gable”, one of the more energetic tracks on Give Up. Tamborello’s upbeat production and quick beats belie a sad tale of—take a guess—lost love. So very emo, yet so very evocative.
“Clark Gable” is just one of the many tracks in which Gibbard’s lyrics show a fascination with entering a dream world and leaving reality behind. The narrator of the song envisions creating a movie set so that he can reclaim a lost love, even if she’s acting. “I need you to pretend that we are in love again / And you agreed to / I want so badly to believe / That there is truth that love is real”, Gibbard sings. Goofy? Yeah, maybe a little. But Gibbard is so expressive and uniquely talented at busting through the clichéd topics that the silly lyrics become more poignant than perhaps they should be.
The narrator of “Sleeping In” dreams of a world “where everything was exactly how it seemed / Where there was never any mystery / Of who shot John F. Kennedy” while on “Brand New Colony” he sings, “I want to take you far from the cynics in this town / Start brand new colony / We’ll live ourselves new names / Our identities erased”. The allusions to a synthetic reality nicely parallel an album that uses synthetic sounds to form its base, especially on songs like “Brand New Colony” and “Nothing Better”, both of which sound like video games gone indie.
The Postal Service have crafted a catchy, pleasant album in Give Up, a disc that can stand right along with Neon Golden on the top pedestal of the synth pop resurrection, for what it’s worth. It’s a nice introduction for the uninitiated.