It’s been a decade since The Postal Service released Give Up, since its charming and affable bleeps and bloops lent a sonic backdrop to college campuses and stoner bedrooms and car commercials, since Give Up appeared on medical dramadies set in Seattle and coming-of-age indie films set in New Jersey. It’s been a decade since Give Up was, in short, everywhere.
Given that it was simply a side project, a diversion for electronic music producer Jimmy Tamborello and indie-rocker Ben Gibbard, it’s surprising just how successful — and inescapable — the music was.
But unlike some pop music, its ubiquity was never irritating. It was the first electronic music album that I played in heavy rotation. I listened to it while stoned, while stone sober, while walking to class, and in my head while sitting in class. I listened to it at two in the morning and two in the afternoon.
Up to that point, I viewed electronic music as nothing but rib-rattling bass and thumping kick-drums. It was a genre ostensibly orchestrated for improving people’s acid trips or letting them uninhibitedly dance without a shirt (and pants) in a misguided notion that they’re enjoying a wonderfully practical and life-fulfilling experience.
But note-by-genial-note, Give Up disintegrated my preconceived notions of what electronic music was. It dissolved the seemingly insoluble conclusion that “electronic” music and “trance” music were the same thing.
Ben Gibbard’s clever and innocently insightful lyrics, coupled with his boyish vocals, indulged a sappy romanticism without overly dramatizing it. Tamborello proved through precise measurements and bright instrumentation that electronic music was appropriate for various situations unassociated with trance music’s typical warehouses, that electronic music doesn’t need to be something with a four-on-the-floor beat and listened to with a clear-plastic cup of vodka in one hand while your skull rattles from the inescapable bass barrage.
One of the appropriate adjectives for Give Up is “gentle.” The music is bright-eyed and wondrous. Lyrics are packed with simple little turns of phrase and messages about love, both the mutual kind (“They will see us waving from such great heights”) and the unrequited kind (“I am finally seeing that I was the one worth leaving”).
From bleak imagery of sleepy districts and tattered badges, to charming imagery of matching eye freckles, none of it is the least bit awkward or off-putting. It’s not Radiohead alienation or Nirvana angst or Nine Inch Nails depression or pop-radio sex-obsessions. Give Up is its own little brand of eccentric electronic sentimentality. Sometimes the atmosphere is clouded with heavier strokes, but it’s always with a subtlety that never detracts from the overall genial approach.
So everyone liked it, from stoners to jocks to English lit majors to science geeks. Its infectious affability made it the sonic embodiment of really good weed — instantly making people find life brighter and inducing an unwavering smile. Even in the crumbling-relationship back-and-forth of “Nothing Better,” there’s a cheeriness to Jenny Lewis’s and Gibbard’s jovial deliveries weaving in and out of each other. It’s a cute and fun approach to a typically depressive and solemn experience.
And while all that music is greatly appreciated, I enjoy Give Up just as much — if not more — for its connection to a specific time period. For me, going back and listening isn’t so much an exercise in experiencing in a wonderfully crafted sonic landscape — although it kind of is — but it’s more of an exercise in dwelling in a past so richly colored by the sounds.
Give Up isn’t a timeless classic, but it is a classic at a very specific time. Which is why, I think, so many fans fall around the same age and share the same general experiences with the record. The amiable sounds even parallel and, to a certain extent, symbolize the prolific rise in digital music and communication, which were rapidly changing how we all interacted with each other. Give Up emerged when Facebook was just starting out, when Napster was still a new revolution.
The problem with albums that capture a specific time is that they will always sound like that time. Transcendent is a word that will be attributed to Give Up, but only relating to the demographics. It’s not a piece of art that will span generations. It is permanently fixed in one generation.
But that’s completely fine. Most bands would love to be a generational staple, a cultural touchstone admired and absorbed by such a broad spectrum of the populace.
When viewed from that perspective — as a solid and specific piece of art that captured a single generation — Give Up is a tremendous record. Because it never strived to be anything other than what it is: charming, affable, lovely and at times pensive and serene. Those are the same characteristics of my life in that era, and Give Up will always remind me of that time.
It indelibly belongs to the mid-2000s. It forever belongs on Garden State and Grey’s Anatomy. It forever belongs in dining halls and friends’ ratty sedans, at a friend’s party, back in a bedroom so clouded in smoke that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face (both from the thickness of the smoke and because I was so high that I thought my hand was smoke). For me, it forever colors those solitary strolls across a street-lamp-lit campus. I will always inextricably link those memories and the music.
I cannot listen to The Postal Service without thinking about the past. I don’t want it any other way.