If you haven't already heard Dntel's "(This is the Dream of) Evan and Chan," you should do so before you even think about purchasing the Postal Service's Give Up. Dntel head honcho Jimmy Tamborello collaborated with Death Cab for Cutie frontman Benjamin Gibbard on this song, and no other fusion of IDM and indie-pop since has approached this song's greatness. The song was a dazzling piece of time-signature trickery awash in My Bloody Valentine-style bursts of white noise. Gibbard was able to integrate his sonorous voice and elliptical lyrics seamlessly into the music, and the result was perfection in both songcraft and production wizardry. As good as Dntel's 2001 album Life is Full of Possibilities was, if not for the inclusion of "Evan and Chan," critics wouldn't have bestowed upon it nearly as many superlatives as they did. If I had to make a mix CD of my twenty favorite songs of all time, a spot would be guaranteed for "Evan and Chan." When I heard that Jimmy and Ben would be collaborating to produce a full-length, I nearly lost my wits. The possibility of an entire album of such sustained excellence made at least a third of the records I bought over the past two years tremble in fear of the obsolescence that surely awaited them. (Capitol K would have been the first to hit the used bin, but the Notwist and Bows would've still had little to worry about.)
This makes it slightly hard for me to admit that Give Up, the fruit of said collaboration, doesn't live up to these expectations. Granted, Gibbard still has one of the most pleasing voices I've heard lately, and it gives Tamborello's music the personality that even his best instrumental ditties lack. In return, Tamborello puts Gibbard's lyrics in a much sprightlier setting than Death Cab for Cutie's staid (and arguably boring) indie-rock. It's definitely a symbiotic relationship. The music and the vocals interact with each other better than one would expect from by-mail collaboration (hey, they didn't call their project the Postal Service for nothing), and few of the songs sound lazy or rushed. That's definitely more than one can say about, for instance, Airport Five.
However, by the second half of Give Up, the songs begin to follow a predictable formula. Gibbard and his occasional female background vocalists sing about a lovelorn topic while Tamborello slowly layers dated keyboards, swirling guitars, and sampled strings on top of each other. These cheesy electro-pop confections lie closer to Land of the Loops or the Busy Signals than they would to "Evan and Chan.' This is not a bad thing by any means--even at their worst, the songs on Give Up remain catchier than the flu--but you get the feeling that the Postal Service held themselves back a bit.
On opener "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight," Gibbard wanders through an ex-girlfriend's apartment, blaming himself for the decline of the relationship. The lyrics are as detailed and melancholy as those of the best Death Cab songs, but the mid-song tempo change propels the song out of its doldrums. In Death Cab's hands, the entire song would have drowned in an emotional muck. "Nothing Better" is a duet in which Gibbard proposes to a woman who is about to leave him. The over-modulated keyboards make the song sound like a malfunctioning video game, and the woman's icy response to Gibbard's plea is killer. It's certainly a better (and less deranged) battle of the sexes than the Human League's "Don't You Want Me?" In "Clark Gable," Gibbard decides that he wants a love resembling that in a Hollywood movie, so he decides to make a film with his ex-girlfriend. Despite the extremely saccharine subject matter, these songs remain highlights of Give Up because of the strength of the melodies and arrangements.
However, it is not until the album's last three songs that the dynamic duo veers into darker, more abrasive territory. "This Place Is a Prison" is a slow, moody change of pace that lives up to its title. The rumbling, distorted beats and electric piano remind me of Icelandic trio Mum. Gibbard delivers very pointed admonishments toward a decadent friend: "It's not a party if it happens every night/Pretending there's glamour and candelabra when you're drinking by candlelight." Right after he sings these words, real drums enter the mix to drive the point home. "Brand New Colony" puts choppy organ chords against brisk two-step rhythms, as Gibbard urges a lover to escape town and start a new life with him. The ironically titled album closer, "Natural Anthem," revisits the sonic blizzard of "Evan and Chan." After an album's worth of sugar, the noise is quite cathartic, but the song still feels underwritten. You wouldn't expect an anthem to hold off on the vocals until its last forty-five seconds, but it does, with Gibbard's voice and lyrics seemingly like a tacked-on afterthought. Give Up ends by giving the listener the hope that its last three songs will serve as a gateway to less reserved collaborations. In the meantime, here's hoping that Gibbard and Tamborello don't make good on the promise made in the album's title.