Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Long Time Coming: The Postal Service's "Give Up"

When I first moved back to Austin in 2009, my first job was at the Doughtery Arts Museum as the music teacher for their elementary age summer program. My wife was working just up the road at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, and we commuted to the area. We ended up spending quite a bit of time that summer in the Zilker Park and Barton Springs area. Not a bad area to reacquaint myself with my hometown. Last summer, I have passed through the area with some regularity and found myself feeling nostalgic about that time.

Not that it was a better time: I was immersed in a stressful struggle to find a permanent job here while pushing to finish my Master’s thesis. There was a subtle feeling of liberation, however, that was embedded in all that uncertainty. Because nostalgia works the way it does, this feeling is what came when I sat down at a rickety picnic table at Flipnotics to enjoy an inexplicably overpriced cup of coffee and capture some thoughts about The Postal Service.

Although The Postal Service’s Give Up was originally released in 2003, the hype around its recent reissue late last spring would have the public think that is was an entirely new album. For those of us that missed out on it back then, it might as well be. When I admitted to my friends that I had never heard the album, it was a virtual record-scratch moment. I unapologetically follow my own path when it comes to the music I pay attention to, though, which (as I have stated before) puts me way behind on the hipness curve. Truly great albums eventually make it into the player - sometimes over a decade later!

And Give Up is, quite simply, a great synth-pop album (arguably “perfect,” to quote my Aiki Brother). It’s got infectious, playful melodies embedded within a musical landscape of surprising depth and subtle experimentation. Stylistically, The Postal Service recombines a variety of synth-pop tropes in multiple ways. Pretty much any electronic technique that has ever worked well up to the release of Give Up seems to make an appearance on the album: old-school analog, sampling, live instruments, looping, and probably lots of other approaches that I just don’t know about. The end result is both cohesive enough to be immediately engaging, but broad enough to satisfyingly unravel though multiple listenings

The lyrics, however, are the gift that keeps on giving. The quiet enlightenments about the everyday that flash through people's heads are given a simple and direct voice throughout Give Up. Using clear allegorical narratives, The Postal Service consistently toes the conceptual line between playfulness and profundity, mirroring the tension between liberation and pressure that surrounds the Barton Springs area for me now.

Although I picked it up on somewhat of a whim through word-of-mouth, Give Up turned into the definitive album of summer 2013.  Not only did I come to really enjoy it, I could put it on around almost anyone (including the Little One) at anytime and be assured of a positive reaction. The recent release also has a second disc with a few new tracks and a collection of covers.  This includes artists covering songs from Give Up as well as Postal Service covering other tunes.  It takes a band with some vision to cover a good Phil Collins song (an important distinction, because there are good ones and there are bad ones), but they pull it off pretty well.  Although this bonus disc doesn't quite stand on its own as an album, it is interesting, nonetheless.  Longtime fans of the band will probably find something interesting to check out here, as well.  For us newcomers, though, Give Up is worth the wait.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed the music on this blog. The songs are so melodic, and the words sound as if they could stand alone as poetry. Plan to add this album to my own playlist. Thanks, Jeff!