The Postal Service: Everything Will Change

Surprisingly, a bunch of sentimental laptop pop songs from ten years ago (Give Up) make for a dynamic and engaging live show.
The Postal Service
Sub Pop

With ten years separating the Postal Service’s only studio album, Give Up and the band’s 2013 reunion tour, there are cheekier self-referencing titles they could have picked for the accompanying concert doc than Everything Will Change. How about Slowly Growing Old Together? Or maybe Everything Looks Perfect from Far Away? But The Postal Service, even with its original run coming at the apex of Ben Gibbard’s heaviest wordplay phase, never let its sentimental streak come second to its cleverness or deceptively clinical sound. A warm heart beat underneath those fussy lyrical conceits and meticulously glitched-out beats, and that emotional sweep is only more apparent in the reunited onstage incarnation documented here.

Death Cab for Cutie frontman Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello, AKA Dntel, began their collaboration in 2001 when Gibbard contributed lyrics and vocals to “(This is) The Dream of Evan and Chan”, a standout on Dntel’s Life is Full of Possibilities. Musical chemistry duly acknowledged, they began a full-fledged collaboration, mailing CD-Rs back and forth, with Tamborello producing a bedrock of loops on sampler and laptop, and Gibbard adding melodies, guitar, and drums. After a couple of vocal recording sessions, including some sweetening from Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, they had their album, a side project that bleeped and swooned like an Atari 2600 in love. After a relatively short tour in 2003, Gibbard and Tamborello set The Postal Service aside for the sake of their main concerns, which would have hardly been a controversial move had this been any old side project. But just as Gibbard got back to promoting Death Cab’s Transatlanticism, also released in 2003,Give Up became one of the least likely best sellers in Sub Pop history, and in the process perhaps the indie pop touchstone of the early aughts. Music sites and fans latched on to any hint of a second album right up until the band announced a Give Up deluxe edition and reunion tour in 2013.

I’ll admit to having skipped out on the renewed hype. Adored as it is, Give Up is a perfect little album, emphasis on “little”. Its charms are built into its headphone-friendliness, Tamborello’s precise, trebly arrangements underlining the immediacy in Gibbard’s monologues (and one dialogue, but more on that in a moment). Give Up seemed to me a closet drama of an album: a document, not a performance piece. So I, of all people, understand if you’re a fan of Give Up who nonetheless couldn’t muster up much excitement to see a ten-years-out-of-practice, largely electronic side-project of the guy whose main band has been yielding diminishing returns since not long after the Postal Service did their thing the first time. Everything Will Change, primarily a recording of two performances at Berkeley, California’s Greek Theater with some short interviews interspersed, is a thorough rebuttal: fellow naysayers, we missed out!

The potential limitations of The Postal Service’s material in a live context wasn’t lost on its members. Not content to plop a mic in front of Gibbard while Tamborello taps along, they redesigned their songs for maximum physicality without bloating them with unnecessary flourishes. The touring incarnation inflates the band to a four-piece, with Jenny Lewis now a full member, and Laura Burhenn (the Mynabirds) pitching in on vocals, keys, and vibraphone. Even with the extra help, Gibbard in particular makes things entertainingly difficult for himself, not just handling guitar and keys, but often covering drum parts that might just as easily have been programmed — or perhaps they couldn’t have been. In one of the interviews, Tamborello explains that, while the samples he’d used on the album had been sitting on a seldom-used sampler for the last ten years, he had to reassemble the parts for the reunion tour.

Their best move is in promoting Lewis from a minor studio role to the front of the stage alongside Gibbard. She’s less backup vocalist than intermittent duet partner, and besides adding second guitar, acquits herself as perhaps the world’s most enthusiastic triggerer of drum pad claps, and, as Gibbard does on a number of songs, proves herself a passable drummer on the band’s cover of Beat Happening’s “Our Secret”. She also reinvents the band’s one song originally designed as a conversational duet, “Nothing Better”. The only major female vocal performance on the album that Lewis didn’t record herself, Jen Wood’s original calm, aloof delivery underscores the song’s “Don’t You Want Me” DNA. Onstage, Lewis instead plays to the crowd, milking the lines for every ounce of character she can find. It doubles as empathy for Gibbard’s sad-sack dumpee and an effortless sensuality that adds extra sting to the breakup (although there are limits to this kind of dramatic play-acting at a rock show; Gibbard’s straight-face doesn’t quite make it through the last verse).

Other onstage innovations are subtle, but striking. “Sleeping In” gains new texture through some additions on acoustic guitar, “This Place is a Prison” is broad and dark, with a droning guitar lead by Lewis. Of the non-album tracks that fill out the set, “A Tattered Line of String” is strengthened in particular by the live band treatment, and “(This is the Dream of) Evan and Chan” gets an appealing New Order makeover and due acknowledgment as the project’s genesis through a penultimate slot in the encore.

The Postal Service has always been fueled by a set of interlocked nostalgias. From the vintage arcade game sound and roundabout callbacks to ’80s synthpop to Gibbard’s regretful exes and revisionists, the band’s catalog so treasures the past that even the apocalypse is just as much about the photos kept between the canned food and filtered water as it is the possibility of disintegration. On another level, the band’s brief initial run lodges it firmly in 2003, a microcosm of an indie pop heyday of sorts. Even moreso than albums by bands whose careers extended before and after time, Give Up engenders reminiscing. And now, if the band is to be believed and this tour was, in fact, their last go at it, those lucky enough to see them live have something else to be nostalgic about. But at least they and the rest of us have the video.

Splash Image: Promotional shot of the Postal Service (photographer unknown)

RATING 7 / 10