How The Postal Service Accidentally Created The Perfect Pandemic Album
Released 17 years ago, 'Give Up' eerily predicted many aspects of our lockdown life.
Last week, Jenny Lewis, Jimmy Tamborello, and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, all tweeted a mysterious video clip that said “The Postal Service” and “Your meeting will begin tomorrow,” alongside the following day’s date. Understandably, long-suffering fans were gripped with a feverish anticipation that the supergroup was about to drop new music.
It would have been their first new release in 17 years following 2003’s Give Up, which is their only album to date. Unfortunately, it emerged that they’re weren’t teasing new music — instead they released a video PSA about the US elections that included many celebrities begging people to vote.
The false start disappointed fans, who will now never know what a Postal Service quarantine record would sound like. However, it could be argued that we do know what a pandemic Postal Service record would sound like — because it was released in February 2003. Give Up, with its grim dissatisfaction, melancholy, and dripping cynicism was practically made for 2020.
The Tyranny Of Distance
The Postal Service formed in 2001 as a side project between Gibbard and Tamborello, who’s best known by his DJ moniker Dntel. The band’s name came from the way the two musicians collaborated — sending each other CD-Rs through the mail, each adding to a track until the album was finished.
The two band members worked on the album separately, informing its motif of isolation (now more relatable than ever). Lewis came on to provide back-up vocals, including on the memorable duet ‘Nothing Better’, a touching point-counterpoint between two lovers in the process of breaking up.
A number of themes feed into Give Up, but the overall feeling is complete dissatisfaction with the world, as its protagonists struggle to maintain idealism and romance amid cynicism and despair. A sense of distance pervades the entire record.
Recorded in the cultural aftermath of the September 11 attack and then-President George W Bush’s ‘war on terror’, it’s no surprise that Gibbard’s melancholy lyrics contained more than a flirtation with nihilism. It was the early 2000s, after all, and mainstream culture was kind of…numb.
It was a starved culture in a state of identity crisis. I was listening to Muse sing about the apocalypse and watching movies like The Matrix: Reloaded and Code 46, searching for meaning set in dystopias leached of colour. Puddle of Mudd’s ‘She Hates Me’ was charting in Australia, a song that The Good Place posited would literally be played in hell. Things were grim.
Even The Postal Service’s hit single ‘Such Great Heights’ — the most soaring track on the record and, according to Gibbard himself, the first positive love song he’d ever written — contains within it a sense of alienation, of love needing to exist far away from the rest of the world in order to be sublime. Others are telling the couple to come back down to earth, but they decline because “everything looks perfect from far away”. Even in this dreamy paean to love, there is distance.
Like in his main project Death Cab For Cutie, Gibbard’s lyrics for The Postal Service give the sense of someone lost in his own head, going back over old relationships, escaping into his imagination. On ‘Clark Gable’, Gibbard muses, “I’ve been waiting since birth for a love that would look and sound like a movie,” and then asks his ex to perform a recreation of their relationship, this time directed by himself and scripted to perfection: “I want so badly to believe that there is truth, that love is real.”
At the heart of Give Up is the fear we won’t get a happy ending, that life ultimately won’t be kind to us.
On ‘Sleeping In’, he dreams of a world that makes sense, where mysteries have mundane answers and global warming is just a reward for good behaviour: “Now we can swim any day in November”. For Gibbard, a resident of chilly Seattle, this would be a coup indeed.
On ‘Nothing Better’, Gibbard’s idealised description of a crumbling relationship is interrupted by his partner (played by Lewis), who enters the song with the delightful line “I feel I must interject here”. She presents the facts to Gibbard and pours the cold water of reality over his romantic daydreams. “Don’t you feed me lines about some idealistic future/Your heart won’t heal right if you keep tearing out the sutures.”
Even while loneliness tempts us to overlook the realities of why a relationship fell apart, you can’t grow unless you let go of that idealised image of someone. In other words, don’t text your ex while lonely.
There’s No Happy Ending Here
At the heart of Give Up is the fear that we won’t get a happy ending, that life ultimately won’t be kind to us. Or, even more depressingly, that love itself is a myth.
While Gibbard is mainly exploring dystopian themes through the lens of a relationship ending — using bunkers, prisons and civil unrest (such as on ‘Natural Anthem’) as metaphors for denial, depression and dissatisfaction — they fit easily into a state of global disaster.
Lyrics like “I’ve got a cupboard with cans of food/Filtered water and pictures of you/And I’m not coming out until this is all over” hit a little too close to home in 2020. ‘We Will Become Silhouettes’ is perhaps the most eerily prescient song from the album, with Gibbard blithely singing “I wanted to walk through the empty streets/And feel something constant under my feet/But all the news reports recommended that I stay indoors” over a peppy beat.
March feels five minutes and also five years ago.
While ‘This Place Is A Prison’ might have been written about a break-up, or a hometown that has suddenly become too small, its imagery of getting drunk alone in your living room and telling yourself it’s whimsical because you lit some candles is painfully relatable given most venues are closed due to the pandemic.
While ‘The District Sleeps Alone Tonight’ reflects a lonely feeling of impermanence, ‘Recycled Air’ captures the claustrophobic feeling of suspended animation in flight. It’s not dissimilar to that common feeling in quarantine of being suspended in time — March feels, at once, like five minutes and also five years ago.
Tamborello’s slightly DIY beats were somewhat at odds with the popular music of the time, which was slick and shiny and obsessed with partying in the future. The duo’s twee nostalgia married with modern production seemed incongruous in 2003, but ultimately it gifted the album a feeling of timelessness. Give Up feels both ahead of and very of its time.
While listening to an album titled Give Up during a particularly dark and challenging time might seem unwise, its directive is positive: give up on you’ve lost, stop fruitlessly grasping at something gone. The Postal Service may have made the perfect album for a pandemic, a full seventeen years before it was needed.
Kaitlyn Blythe is a Melbourne-based writer and performer. You can find out more about her work here.