Does Give Up Hold Up?

The Postal Service’s Give Up is ten years old. How does the album sound today?


Kevin: Daniel, can you believe that Give Up has been around for TEN YEARS?

I’m about to embarrass myself here, but in high school, I got music recommendations from a friend I’d met on a forum dedicated to the band Incubus (stop laughing). I remember pirating Give Up at his behest, not really knowing what I was downloading (I didn’t even know who Death Cab for Cutie or DNTEL were at the time).

I distinctly remember burning Give Up onto a CD-R and playing it on my bedroom stereo. The first time I heard “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” was sort of transcendent.

“The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”

It starts at a crawl, with Gibbard’s crooning; I remember being really taken with the moment when the drums go into double time and Jimmy Tamborello’s production is suddenly front and center. As it turns out, the best songs on Give Up feel more like Tamborello tugging Gibbard along.

I still listen to Give Up regularly, but I wonder if I like it or if I’m just nostalgic for it. I listened to one of the new tracks that’s being released with its 10th Anniversary Edition and found it sort of insufferable. Whether that’s because it’s bad or because I didn’t listen to it as a fifteen year old, I’m not sure.

We were both impressionable high schoolers when Give Up came out. Where’d you hear it for the first time? How well do you think it holds up?

Daniel: No need to feel embarrassed — message boards were a key engine for music discovery in my high school years as well (I learned about bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and Galaxie 500 thanks to the SLAP Skateboard Magazine forums). That said, I can’t recall exactly how I came across the Postal Service, though I do remember that, like you, my first listen was a revelation. On “District,” the underwater buzz of the bass, the creeping violins, and the ethereal female harmonizing were killer details that supported the solid beat. It’s a fantastic opener: a catchy, complete song that sets the tone and gets you excited for the rest of the album.

“Such Great Heights”

But we’re not just talking about the first track, and here’s where our experiences diverge: unlike you, I’ve seldom returned to Give Up in the years since its release. As soon as I saw you ask how well the album holds up, I tried to recall from memory as much of the album as possible, and got:

  • Every single detail of “District Sleeps Alone Tonight.” I think we’ve made ourselves clear: great, great song.
  • “Such Great Heights,” though my recall of this song could be unrelated to the album’s strengths, since I’ve probably heard it more often as Iron & Wine’s cover version (thanks, Zach Braff).
  • That a glitchy, rough-sounding breakdown occurs somewhere in “Natural Anthem.” This departure from the rest of the album’s tidy politeness felt really experimental and ground-breaking at the time.

And that’s about it. Does that mean Give Up is just a couple strong singles plus some forgettable filler?

Kevin: Aside from “District,” all the songs I like best are completely different from the ones you remember.

  • In high school, I exchanged Walkmans with a girl during a bus ride. So I was listening to her copy of The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, and she was listening to my CD-R of Give Up. After we swapped back, she told me she liked the duet (“Nothing Better”) but that my music was “for pussies.”
  • I listened to “We Will Become Silhouettes” a lot, more often as the cover version by the Shins (thanks, Zach Braff), which at the time was my absolute favorite band. (Also, what about the Postal Service makes them so cover-able?)

“We Will Become Silhouettes”

  • When I started dating my first serious girlfriend, our song was “Brand New Colony.” I learned how to play it on guitar and serenaded her, because I was 17 and that seemed like a really good idea at the time. And it was! I think she got a little teary.
  • When I was cleaning out my room after college, I spent an afternoon listening through a stack of old mix CDs I had made in high school. “Clark Gable” showed up more often than any other song, maybe because I thought it was the most underrated Postal Service track (it is!). Then I threw away all of those CDs.

So clearly I have an extremely sentimental attachment to this album, which seems to have stuck with me through my adult life. I’m curious what you think of the whole thing now.

Daniel: Now that I’ve refreshed my memory and listened to the Give Up several times through, I’m ready to retire my earlier skepticism. Give Up is a consistent, well-paced record with plenty of textural variety playing off a common motif!

Since I’m not anchored to the album by personal vignettes like yours (which are adorable, by the way) I’m unable to chart its meaning over the last ten years. Your memories of Give Up are mostly rooted in the time right after its release. Do you find it just as meaningful today?

“Nothing Better”

Personally, I have no choice but to listen to Give Up strictly in the present. Through the ears of a (semi-functioning) adult, it’s an undoubtedly strong piece of musicianship and composition, but its tone comes off as, dare I say, a little syrupy. For each instance that Jimmy Tamborello does something musically thoughtful, there’s a cloyingly delivered vocal or syrupy sentiment that gives me pause.

For example, in “Nothing Better,” the orchestral burst when the female lead kicks in is really great — it’s a surprising, chaotic, flourish that contrasts nicely with the polite and predictable beat. Unfortunately, to get to this enjoyable detail you first have to hear Gibbard coo about “making you my bride and slowly growing old together.” Likewise in “Brand New Colony,” strains of 8-bit and drum’n'bass find unexpected symbiosis in the beat, but Gibbard evokes first-grade swim class when he promises “I’ll be your water wings,” and then outdoes himself on “Clark Gable” with the immortal plea: “I want so badly to believe that there is truth and love is real.” Listening to Give Up is an enjoyable, occasionally surprising experience, as long as you don’t expect to learn anything too profound from the lyrics.

Kevin: I agree completely. It’s perhaps the same reason why time has not been so kind to Gibbard and his Death Cab for Cutie legacy. There’s something charming about Gibbard’s earnestness, but his lyrics are sentimental rubbish. I’m pretty sure I can dig up poetry I posted to DeviantArt in high school, and it would probably hold up better than most of the lyrics on Give Up.

But I think we’re reaching a broader question: What makes an album enduring? Does it still need to sound as good as it did the day it came out? If that’s how we define a great album, then Give Up is split. I think Tamborello’s production holds up, but Gibbard’s saccharine songwriting doesn’t.

Daniel: I think an album’s endurance and potential for greatness has less to do with overall quality as much as whether or not it continues to evoke widespread, passionate reactions long after its release. By that measure, Give Up is an enduring album. You and I (and my girlfriend, who sang along to the entire album while I listened to it for this exchange) all had substantive things to say about it once it was brought up. The album went platinum, so at least a million other folks (plus another couple million undocumented Limewire users, give or take) could likely share what makes the album special to them.

Also, general-admission floor tickets for the Postal Service reunion tour are $45.00 (pre-convenience fee!) at the Rose Garden in Portland. Clearly a ten-year gestation period for crappy lyrics has done little to diminish enthusiasm (and profitability) for this music. Can we say the same for other popular tunes from 2003?

Yes we can.

Daniel Adler & Kevin Nguyen really miss being college DJs.