Thirteen years after the Postal Service's only album, it remains a perfect blend of apocalyptic indie-electronica.
Back in 2003, before the United States Postal Service was at risk of imploding, its biggest kerfuffle was the cease and desist letter they sent to a certain indie band.
This band, of course, was the Postal Service—the new project of Ben Gibbard, who had already established himself in Pacific Northwest rock by this point as the frontman of Death Cab for Cutie. The USPS accused Gibbard and his bandmate, producer Jimmy Tamborello, of violating the agency's trademark mere months after their only album, Give Up, was released to generally positive acclaim.
So, the USPS reached an agreement with the Postal Service and their label, Sub Pop: If the band agreed to play a set at a conference and sell copies of Give Up on the USPS online store, they could keep their name. So, Gibbard and Tamborello agreed to fly out to the conference, and played two songs to an 800-person crowd who "probably [weren't] going to care."
Over fifteen years later, however, it seems Gibbard hasn't let the minor legal upset get to him; in the most recent installment of his ongoing webcam performances, he played the Postal Service's hit "Such Great Heights"—rightfully dedicating it to the USPS.
Ben Gibbard - #TeamJoeSings www.youtube.com
"We made this music by sending CDs back and forth to each other," Gibbard said of making Give Up, as he lived in Seattle while Tamborello was based in Los Angeles. "We made a record using the United States Postal Service, so therefore we called ourselves the Postal Service."
With President Trump continuously making false claims that mail-in ballots lead to voter fraud, the USPS has become a hot-button topic in political discussions lately. For indieheads, that means endless opportunities to make jokes referencing one of the most special indie acts of the 2000s.
Such Great Heights remains a timeless classic https://t.co/hOv0dXmuF8— Caroline Polachek (@Caroline Polachek) 1597007167.0
was the postal service socialist? all of the songs are about like evaporating out of the work day into your lovers… https://t.co/qvFt0S1bLs— Melissa Lozada-Oliva (@Melissa Lozada-Oliva) 1597870686.0
Please do everything you can to support the Postal Service. Ben Gibbard is starving. https://t.co/szOICsBFoI— Autumnal Taj (@Autumnal Taj) 1597680451.0
While the Postal Service, the government agency, delivers about 470 million pieces of mail a day, the Postal Service, the band, never made another album after Give Up, despite its shocking success. With 1.07 copies sold, it was Sub Pop's second release to achieve platinum status, trailing behind only Nirvana's debut Bleach.
It doesn't take long to understand why Give Up became so successful; from the beginning synth chords of opening track "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight," the combination of Gibbard's tactful, poignant songwriting and Tamborello's glitchy techno evidences an unmatched chemistry. With Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis providing background vocals on much of the album, Give Up is a record so encapsulating that calling it a Death Cab side project feels horrendously belittling.
As are most things Gibbard, Give Up bears an overall sense of heartache. But what sets the lyrics of the Postal Service apart from their more emo peers is its ability to transport listeners to a dystopian universe. Songs like "Recycled Air" and "Sleeping In" reflect on the visible effects of global warming, and are just as jarring 17 years later. "Brand New Colony" imagines running away with a romantic partner and building a town from scratch.
Elsewhere, certain lines feel like they could've been written in March 2020: "I know there's a big world out there / Like the one that I saw on the screen / In my living room late last night," Gibbard sings on "This Place Is a Prison," as if written from the perspective of his future self binging Netflix in quarantine. The most blatant example of Gibbard's post-apocalyptic imagery comes on "We Will Become Silhouettes," a bouncy, bass-bumping number that juxtaposes its sunny melodies with descriptors like "all the news reports recommended that I stay indoors."
The Postal Service - Such Great Heights [OFFICIAL VIDEO] www.youtube.com
Even "Such Great Heights," the album's most commercially successful song, builds a sense of escapism. It might be the first positive love song Gibbard remembers writing, but its chorus still leaves a dark mystery: "Everything looks perfect from far away / 'Come down now,' but we'll stay," he sings, as if making a long-awaited transcendence into a more beautiful world.
Give Up sounded like nothing else at the time of its release. The Postal Service drew comparisons to everything from '80s new wave to Bjork circa Homogenic, and it's obviously easy to hear similarities between them and Death Cab or Tamborello's electronica solo act, Dntel. But even in spite of the band's innovation, the music of the Postal Service brought an undeniably infectious appeal.
In the years following Give Up, "Such Great Heights" appeared in TV shows like Grey's Anatomy and Veronica Mars, as well as in commercials for UPS, Target, Ask.com, and M&M's. It appeared in the trailer for the 2004 film Garden State, though an Iron & Wine cover of the song was included on the soundtrack.
Just a few months after the Postal Service released Give Up, Death Cab released their fourth album, Transatlanticism. It was Death Cab's first album to achieve notable mainstream success, likely due to the chatter of Give Up before it. For years, whispers of a follow-up album between Gibbard and Tamborello circulated; they embarked on a brief 10th anniversary tour, announcing that their August 5, 2013 show in Chicago would be the final Postal Service show.
lil peep w/ yung bruh - white tee www.youtube.com
Compared to other records released in 2003—even Transatlanticism—Give Up has held up immensely well and has proven to resonate with future musicians; the Postal Service's influence can be heard in the twee synths of Owl City and Hellogoodbye. A prominent sample of "Such Great Heights" can be heard in "white tee" by the late emo rapper Lil Peep. Like the possibility of an apocalypse, Give Up isn't just before its time—it surpasses time altogether.