As a musical medium, electronica can be anything -- from harsh to numbing, from spiritual to soothing. Or it can be evocatively nostalgic and go hand-in-hand with quiet indie rock, as the Postal Service's dreamy and reminiscent Give Up (Sub Pop) proves. A side-project of sorts made up of Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, Jimmy Tamborello of Dntel and Figurine, Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley, and solo artist Jen Wood, the Postal Service is the best of the old and the new, combining utter earnestness and sheer modernity in a perfect synthesis. Their first full-length release, Give Up, is as shy as it is exuberant, and as subtle as it is compelling.
This is new-wave pop without the snarkiness or self-consciousness, and Gibbard's lyrics, always driving and sensitive, here lift the album to levels of emotive power and gracefulness not often found in electronica. The beats are reminiscent of early childhood, of the time on the border between innocence and experience. Fierce loveliness lies in the contrast between the somewhat inhuman sounds of the synthesizers and back beats and Gibbard's sad, beautiful voice. The dueling vocals and updated New Order-esque sound on "Nothing Better" combines the best of Gibbard's and Lewis's voices in a subtle crescendo making the beautifully fantastic out of the potentially mundane back-and-forth of a girl and boy in love.
"Clark Gable" comments on how life imitates art and art imitates life. When Gibbard sings that "I want so badly to believe that 'there is truth, that love is real' / and I want life in every word to the extent that it's absurd," you sympathize with his intense desire for authenticity and beauty in an often prefabricated, ironic world. "Brand New Colony" is a love song for non-believers, where the vocals ("I want to take you far from the cynics in this / town and kiss you on the mouth / we'll cut our bodies free from the tethers of / this scene, start a brand new colony...") and driving video-game-esque bouncy yet melancholy music combine for the best version of shy optimism since Jonathan Richman.
Give Up is the '80s without the apathy and selfishness. This is the perfect marriage of indie rock sensibilities, twee pop and driving electronica. The Postal Service is doing something that is rare in both mainstream and indie rock circles today: making something original and new. Most primary projects, let alone side projects, can't claim nearly as much.
Publication date: 07/17/03