Saturday, 13 April 2013

Nothing Better

The Postal Service – Give Up (Tenth Anniversary Edition)

Back in the day (aside – it’s quite telling that all my articles start with that phrase), anniversary editions were a rare thing. An album had to be a true classic that had stood the test of time for at least 20 years before it was afforded a lavish re-release. But such is our culture of disposability, an album need only rack up a few years in the sun before it’s canonised. It was just about OK that the Manics’ gave The Holy Bible and Everything Must Go the luxury treatment, but Generation Terrorists too? It might have been where their story started, but it hasn’t aged well at all. Then of course there’s the case of Suede who re-released all their albums – but I’ve vented about that before so let’s move on.

The Postal Service’s Give Up is definitely worthy of its tenth anniversary edition, not least because it’s the only album they ever recorded. This new package pulls together their entire output, including unreleased tracks, b-sides (remember them?), covers, remixes and even covers of their songs by other artists.

Even at the time I thought Give Up was special – indeed, it was my album of 2003, the first year that I decided to keep such lists. “Finally”, I said, “an electronic album with an emotional edge, and one that won’t bore you stiff. Every track is great.” (You can read more about that ‘vintage’ year over here, but beware – Athlete are number two on the list). And when I came to compile my top 100 songs of the noughties, Such Great Heights was the perfect choice for the top spot.

One of the things that I love about the album is that it emerged completely out of the blue. It was the result of a collaboration between two relative unknowns: Ben Gibbard had been shuffling around the fringes of the US alt scene with Death Cab For Cutie, and Jimmy Tamborello was an even more obscure glitchtronica artist (I still haven’t explored his other acts, Dntel and Figurine). Theirs was a long-distance relationship (hence the band’s name), with Ben proffering lyrics and vocals to fit Jimmy’s electronic instrumentals. The juxtaposition of heartfelt lyrics with a synthetic backdrop worked a treat.

I’m of the opinion that lyrics are over-rated, in the sense that good lyrics can’t save a bad song, but a good song can still have bad lyrics (T-Rex anyone?). Yet the lyrics on Give Up are so good that I’m always moved by them. The songs broadly fall into two categories – the giddy euphoria of blossoming romance (Such Great Heights, Clark Gable, Brand New Colony) and the dawning realisation that a relationship has run its course (The District Sleeps Alone Tonight, Nothing Better). Ben Gibbard delivers both with stunning honesty and clarity. I’m hardly a sucker for romance (ask my wife), but I can’t help but admire the beauty of Such Great Heights’ opening line:

I am thinking it’s a sign that the freckles in our eyes are mirror images and when we kiss they’re perfectly aligned

(Kissing is a recurring image actually; Ben kisses an old flame “in a style Clark Gable would have admired (I thought it classic)”; whilst he wants to “take you far from the cynics in this town and kiss you on the mouth” in Brand New Colony.)

The lyrics dealing with the dissolution of a relationship are equally potent. Take for example the brutal declaration in The District Sleeps Alone Tonight: “I am finally seeing why I was the one worth leaving”. Or Jen Wood’s opening volley in the duet Nothing Better:

I feel I must interject here, you’re getting carried away feeling sorry for yourself with these revisions and gaps in history”

The female vocal contributions are a vital ingredient to the album’s make-up actually; alongside Jen Wood’s star turn in the aforementioned song, Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley pitches in with backing vocals on six tracks. And lest you think the album is defined by its lyrics and vocals, the closing track Natural Anthem allows Jimmy to take centre stage and unleash an avalanche of clattering breakbeats that leave matters on a visceral note.

So what of this expanded edition? The two previously unreleased tracks (Turn Around and A Tattered Line Of String) are pretty good, and would have been the basis of a decent follow-up album. I never heard the b-sides at the time but they’re also solid (the pick being Suddenly Everything Has Changed, co-written by Wayne Coyne). There’s a bizarre Timberlake/Timbaland-esque cover of Phil Collins’ Against All Odds, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Phil isn’t as reviled across the pond as he is here.

The remixes are an unexpected highlight. Rather than mangling the originals by cutting up the vocals and throwing in dancey beats, they’re a masterclass in careful retexturing, weaving in new touches to complement and refresh the source material. The covers from The Shins and Iron And Wine have probably been included to pad things out a bit, and they don’t do much for me.

Like a true music geek cliché, I fetishised the vinyl edition so plumped for that. It’s truly a thing of beauty, although I was a bit disappointed that the vinyl is plain old black rather than the coloured versions that only come with the Sub Pop pre-orders. One benefit of the vinyl packaging is that it’s actually allowed me to examine the artwork thoroughly for the first time (something that’s even more difficult these days when album artwork is reduced to a thumbnail on your phone). The front cover captures the fanciful dreaminess of the album; through a bedroom window we see a castle in the sky and what appears to be a fleet of alien spacecraft assembling for invasion. 

The back cover depicts a man seeing his (dead? estranged?) bride lost among the waves. It’s surreal but represents the sense of loss and regret expressed in the break-up songs perfectly.

In a way I’m glad that The Postal Service only recorded one album. Not because Give Up is so intimidatingly good that they couldn’t top it (it’s great but not a masterpiece), but because it captures a moment in time where the stars aligned for two unlikely heroes. As for their legacy, I’m not sure they really have one (although Owl City’s Fireflies was a bastardised rip-off that annoyed me greatly). I hear echoes of Give Up on Thom Yorke’s The Eraser but I doubt he was directly influenced. New-ish artist Mr Fogg bears some resemblances too, but that’s as far as it goes, in my mind at least. Nevertheless, Give Up will always be an album dear to my heart, because it speaks to my heart.


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