In Defense of the Postal Service Reunion

Who do the Postal Service think they are? Releasing a ten-song record all the way back in 2003 to universal acclaim, they almost immediately walked away from the notion that more material would be around the corner. A quick tour of tiny rooms, and boom: That was it. Sure, Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello couldn’t resist the temptation to flirt with their hot high school sweetheart every now and then, ultimately leading to speculation that a more permanent union could be in the works. But at the end of each suggestive moment always came the reality of a lonely day, and no matter how many winks, nods or too-long hugs they shared, we all knew that the couple’s most passionate days were behind them, forcing us spectators to lament a love that became faded into the distance as the weeks passed and the years piled up. 

Fans remembered how adorable they looked together — the Gibbard/Tamborello tandem and the bleeps and burps of a very succinct brand of original music — but there simply weren’t enough friends in the world who could convince either party that a reunion might actually lead to a marriage for the ages. All parties had moved on and the shine from those prom pictures faded as quickly as their senior years ended, reduced to no more than another reason to wax nostalgic about how great it once was to be young. They were destined for years of celebrated teamwork and beautiful children, yet such typical life obstacles as going away to college, building a professional career and moving hundreds of miles away from home kept that teenage love affair so far out of reach, each party had no choice but to let its memory fade with the years. 

… Or did they?

A full decade after the release of the Postal Service’s lone full-length album, Give Up, everyone involved somehow wound up at the same ten-year reunion picnic with nary a wrinkle or extra pound to be found. Almost immediately noticing the other sitting at opposite dark-corner tables, both parties quickly sought one another out. Conversation became easy and that long-lost connection appeared to finally be rewiring itself for at least the evening, if not longer. Dialogue turned from superficial, to serious, to evocative, to suggestive. Before anyone knew it, there was an unexpected desire to search for a cheap hotel room at three in the morning, all real life responsibilities be damned. This was going to be a true and full reunion, everybody thought, and nobody was going to be cheated out of the details. 

So it went last week as I ventured to Merriweather Post Pavilion near Washington D.C. to witness a stop on the Postal Service’s extended one-night stand. It was everything anyone could ever want from a getaway evening with one’s puppy-love provocateur to be: flashy, energetic, sincere, complete, powerful, memorable, sexy and endearingly flawed. Walking away from the scene, it became imperative to ask why life has to be deprived of such experiences as often as it is. The evening brought forth a performance far too affecting to be dismissed as a one-off, far too polished for critics to claim it as an apathetic money-grab for reasons that frankly would be impossible to comprehend, anyway. 

“The Postal Service would make it immediately clear that their reunion tour is about more than just revisiting an album — the band’s superlative instrumentation and vocal execution on a reunion tour are indicative of a clear dedication to rehearsal and attention to detail,” Baltimore City Paper‘s Steve Perraud wrote the day after the show. “The band’s ability to avoid the potential snags of reunion tours — without having been on the road together for a decade to boot — provided a more than welcome surprise. Of the talent spread between the group’s members, the evening’s most exciting displays lay in the use of uncommon instruments. Dizzying talk box play on ‘Recycled Air,’ and the brief use of a harmonica by Jenny Lewis, would occupy appropriately noticeable spaces in the dreamy, sentimental canvas of Give Up.” (“Postal Service returns with Merriweather show and new video”, 19 June 2013)

Ahhh, sentimentality. It’s at the crux of not only this tour’s success, but also the legacy of the band. Say all you want about the spooky nature of such current-day minimal standouts as the xx or Foals, but in 2003, the type of music that illustrated Gibbard and Tamborello’s collective imagination simply didn’t exist in the same way it does in today’s indie vernacular. Those ten songs became as timeless as they are today by displaying the earnest dynamics of the Death Cab For Cutie singer in brilliant ways nobody had heard before, offering up unprecedented hubris within vocals that sat on top of the Dntel mastermind’s production skills with the confidence of Braveheart. Transcendent is a word used far too often in today’s reactionary universe, but there simply hadn’t been an act to combine the angst of a technology-fueled generation with the modernism of electronic evolution before the Postal Service shrugged their way into our minds. 

What this tour and reissue prove is precisely how spectacularly well those songs have grown into adulthood. As the years passed and the reunion rumors swirled, Give Up aged with its fans, each lyric taking on new meanings as maturity crept in. Words that once depicted the intimidating prospect of an existence filled with anxiety and transition inexplicably became words serving as proof for how essential a specific brand of tension is to the entire practice of transitory growth. As is the case with any great piece of art, the poetry within this stuff gains more strength as the world gets heavier, the phrases becoming more and more attractive as the years provide enough weather to suggest repugnancy to the naked eye. 

But as I (along with an unexpectedly large and faithful crowd) learned last week, the Postal Service are resilient. Gibbard, for all his sophistication and stoic prophesies, appeared to care nothing about age as his noticeably slim frame slinked around the stage like a python at a rave. Jenny Lewis, the forgotten hero of the outfit, was impossible to ignore in her sparkly black dress as she cutely two-stepped with the group’s leader during the masterful “Nothing Better”, a performance that served as a microcosm for what makes them so impossibly affable. Never teetering across the line of appropriateness, the image of man and woman seeming so comfortable around one another without ever suggesting as much as a hint of sexual tension between the two is hard to portray and even harder to believe. 

But then again, maybe that’s why the demand for such a tour has never really waned in popularity through the years — for as accepted and lauded as the artists at hand have always been, each has, in their own ways, kept a solid grasp of unassuming humility close to their respective chests while maintaining an honorable amount of gratitude to the reception that ten-year-old collection of songs has achieved. 

It makes sense, after all. The Postal Service, remember, is the early Aughts musical equivalent of both NBC’s critically acclaimed ratings disaster 30 Rock and the recently rebooted cult hit Arrested Development. Much like the reaction one may receive while talking intelligently about their cable counterparts, citing “Such Great Heights” or “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” as a favorite song these days is a surefire way to obtain a very specific level of credibility within the eyes of music enthusiasts. Sure, all three entities are far from the first to do what they do, but keep in mind that they are the only ones to be doing it during a time when the craving for as much is at an all-time high. Showcasing more brains than a NASA recruitment camp, yet maintaining just enough originality and accessibility to actually be noticed, both TV shows and the band carved out a tiny place in popular culture reserved for those disinclined to fully submit to the mainstream. Liking these things almost always ensures a high level of taste within one’s entertainment preferences. 

Or, in other words, wanting to enjoy this stuff sometimes supersedes actually taking the time to consume it.

That’s OK, of course. Such a reputation consistently creates a base of people who stay loyal to the brand (that is, unless you are among the many who claim the recent Arrested Development season was a complete waste, in which case … well, boo to you). Such was evidenced as the Postal Service’s set came to a close last week. Instead of heading for the doors to try and take advantage of less traffic in the parking lot, it was abundantly clear that hardly anybody in attendance wanted to miss a possible encore, a rare act of commitment in a subculture becoming increasingly concerned with convenience. 

“Everything will change,” Gibbard insisted during the final seconds of the evening as the group wound down “Brand New Colony”, the encore’s swan song. There was irony in the moment that probably wasn’t lost on the thousands who showed up on a night initially threatened by rain. The singer has said as recently as October that “people shouldn’t hold their breath” for a new Postal Service release, noting that “you’re going to pass out if you do.”

“I think people like the idea of a second Postal Service record better than they would like the second Postal Service record,” he continued. “It’s the desire for something one can’t have, the anticipation of possessing something is more fulfilling than actually having something.” (“Ben Gibbard on Postal Service: ‘People Shouldn’t Hold Their Breath’ Hoping For Another Album”, by Ian Gormely, Spinner, 24 October 2012)

Maybe. But for at least one summer night in Columbia, Maryland, it appeared as though nobody had any true regrets about the decision to reserve their spots at such a highly anticipated reunion. Because no matter the consequences anyone had to face once the next morning arrived and real life came calling, there was no denying that such an event had to occur, if not to evoke thoughts of a hopeful future, then to offer the only real shot at a proper goodbye. “I need you to pretend that we are in love again,” Gibbard so eloquently recited during “Clark Gable” earlier that night.  

We agreed to.