In 2003 I found myself trying to wrap up a fifteen month breakup that had lasted almost as long as the relationship. The previous year I’d gone to South Korea ostensibly to follow the World Cup. For a complicated set of reasons and a series of miscalculations, I went alone while my girlfriend also swapped the southern hemisphere for a northern summer, pulling pints in a Cornish pub in England. We broke up through an extended cycle of expensive long distance phone calls between a pay phone in her village and my dingy dormitory town flat half-an-hour away from the Seoul subway. It was a one year contract but between the culture shock and the breakup I was laid so low I quit my job without telling the school and withdrew all my savings from the bank. I stuffed fistfuls of won into the bottom of my backpack, left in the middle of the night and flew back to Brisbane. I moved into a hastily renovated worker’s cottage cut into the side of Highgate Hill and got a job as a telemarketer. My ex-girlfriend arrived home two or three months after me. We made a couple of attempts at reconciliation that were as erotic as they were awkward. Under the guise of being friends we’d catch up to see a movie then end up in bed. It unravelled in confusion, mistrust and, eventually, recrimination. Then we would repeat the cycle a week later. It was doomed. She had a new boyfriend anyway: the manager of the pub where she’d worked. He was waiting on a visa before he came over. We kept this up for a month or two until finally, at some point, we both walked away.
I was devastated. I’d hoped somehow that we’d get back together.I turned to introspection and, as I’ve always done, to pop music to give succour to my introspection. The record that got me through was Give Up by The Postal Service. Released fifteen years ago in February 2003, it was a side-project for Death Cab for Cutie front man Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello, the creative brains behind fledgling LA glitch electronica band DNTEL. It was an early exploration of what was possible when traditional indie pop met digital music. The song I returned to, over and over, was ‘Nothing Better’, a breakup duet between a boy, entranced by the possibilities of what might have been, and a girl calling time on what was never going to be. It was the medicine for my heart’s sickness.
The song is exquisitely produced with a driving back beat, a funky breakbeat on top and a piano bridge cleverly doubled with an electronic approximation. But the production wasn’t what I fell for. It was the way it captured the collapse of a romance.. ‘Tell me am I right to think that there could be nothing better/ Than making you my bride and slowly growing old together?’ Gibbard pleads. But Girl, sung by Seattle singer Jen Wood, shuts down his ‘revisions and gaps in history’ with ‘charts and graphs that should finally make it clear/ I’ve prepared a lecture on why I have to leave.’ Girl isn’t just a cypher for Boy to project anxieties onto. She’s three dimensional flesh and blood fed up with Boy’s shit. This right of reply sets ‘Nothing Better’ apart from so many ‘girl-done-me-wrong’ ballads, which is part of the reason I found it so therapeutic. I was Boy, feeding my sense of injustice a narrative riven with revisions and gaps in history. The song was my reminder, in the maelstrom of a lovelorn heart’s tendency to seek the refuge of fables, that it was up to me to get myself out of this mess.
The Postal Service collaboration grew out of a track on DNTEL’s third album Life is Full of Possibilities, ‘(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan’. One of the most warmly received tracks on the album, recording the tune was evidently rewarding and the pair continued writing together. With Gibbard based in San Francisco and Tamborello in Los Angeles, the duo mailed sound files back and forth through the post (there was no Dropbox back then). Gibbard sang his saccharine but plaintive pop lyrics, while Tamborello scaffolded intricate multilayered compositions that combined glitch melody lines, strings and breakbeats.
Despite the strength of early reviews, a busy north Atlantic touring schedule and Death Cab for Cutie’s expanding fan base, the album’s popularity grew slowly. The singles kept trickling out. ‘Such Great Heights’, the album’s lead single, was featured on Veronica Mars and appeared on the Garden State soundtrack. The album played a major role in launching the era of the indie sound tracked commercial with its tunes featuring in shills for US hospital chain Kaiser Permanente, search engine Ask.Com and M&Ms. The Shins, Iron and Wine and Ben Folds Five all recorded covers. The momentum built and, by 2005, ‘Such Great Heights’, Give Up’s most popular track, was consistently in the weekly Top Five of proto-streaming service Last.fm. By the time a deluxe 10th anniversary set was re-released in 2013, it was Sub Pop’s second highest selling album behind Nirvana’s debut Bleach. The pair never recorded a follow up, perhaps in part because of the increasing demands of Gibbard’s day job in Death Cab for Cutie who, buoyed by the success of it’s frontman’s side project, became a mainstay of 21st century indie rock.
The growth in the band’s following was reflected in the extensive north Atlantic tour that that accompanied the reissue and featured amongst its highlights slots at Coachella on consecutive weekends and the Primavera Festival in Spain. Mark Kozalek, who performs as Sun Kil-Moon, described the band’s changing fortunes in his song ‘Ben’s My Friend’:
Standing at the back of the crowd of eight thousand
I thought of Ben when I met him in 2000
At a festival in Spain
He has on the small stage then and I didn’t know his name
Now he’s singing at the Greek and he’s busting moves.
Part of the album’s durability can be attributed to the uniqueness of the songs. The opening of ‘Such Great Heights’, with electronic bleeps bouncing between the left and right channel, gradually fading to a breakbeat organised around a manufactured scratch before the piano kicks in, sounds like nothing else in pop. When I first heard it I felt like a 2003 Jon Landau prepared to declare: ‘I saw indie pop future and its name is The Postal Service’. This was the fusion of digital and analogue that I’d been craving. Radiohead’s dirge-y Kid A, released a year earlier, didn’t do it for me, but Give Up seemed to create a template for the possibilities of blending electronica and pop’s essential sunshine. But, looking back, it wasn’t to be. While the collision of indie and electronic is relatively prosaic, there’s really nothing that sounds like it’s been heavily influenced by The Postal Service.
I think the real reason for the record’s enduring listenability is Gibbard’s depiction of the push and pull of early twenties ardour. Relationships are Give Up’s central theme. Seven of the album’s ten tracks can be read as a song cycle chronicling the twisting mountain pass from giddy hope to post-breakup acceptance. Beginning with ‘Brand New Colony’, one lover declares: ‘I’ll be your winter coat buttoned and zipped straight to the throat/ With the collar up so you won’t catch a cold.’ By ‘Such Great Heights’ the boy is confident enough to declare: ‘That God himself did make/ Us into corresponding shapes/ Like puzzle pieces from the clay’. Bliss proves fleeting and in ‘Nothing Better’ the couple are alreadysplitsville. Boy makes his desperate case, detaining her in his dorm room by blocking ‘the door/ like a goalie tending the net in the third quarter/ of a tied game rivalry.’ As for Girl, we’ve seen her flair for objective argument.
The end of many romances, including mine and the real Girl, are aproned by liminal spaces as broad and shifting as tidal flats and in ‘Clark Gable’ Boy and Girl are fumbling around, trying to reignite their spark. Boy is almost begging: ‘I need you to pretend/ That we are in love again/ And you agreed to.’ But any reconciliation is fleeting and before long the breakup is final. Fast forward to ‘We Will Become Silhouettes’ and Boy is boarded up in his house analogising his grief with the end of days: ‘I’ve got a cupboard with cans of food/ Filtered water and pictures of you/ And I’m not coming out until this is all over.’ When he eventually does he discovers its fruitless ‘Pretending there’s glamour and candelabra/ When you’re drinking by candlelight (‘This Place is A Prison’). Finally, Boy gets some perspective on the relationship and visits Girl to stake out some awkward post-tears friendship space. It doesn’t go well. He realises ‘It seems so out of context/ in this gaudy apartment complex/ A stranger with your door key/ Explaining that “I’m just visiting”’ (‘The District Sleeps Alone Tonight’). His realisation is: ‘I was the one worth leaving.’ The album’s last track, ‘Natural Anthem’, seems to tip its hand, revealing the potential autobiographical basis of the cycle:
I’ll write you a song and I hope that you won’t mind
Because all the names and places I have taken from real life.
We’ve all lived these songs. From the fizzy anticipation of back and forth Tinder chat, to the early months of a relationship where every text message can be read as deeply as a rune. And again in those long mourning days when you can’t imagine you’ll ever regain your equilibrium.
‘Such Great Heights’ is one of my favourite songs by any band and ‘Nothing Better’ guided me out of one of the darkest places in my life. I thought I’d exhausted all of its substantial emotional resonance, so I was surprised in 2015, when the album appeared again like a constellation to help me find due south and reorientate myself. This time I was sitting on the back steps of my flat in New Farm listening to Gibbard singing a live acoustic version of ‘Brand New Colony’, one of a quiver of live tracks acquired through years trawling the file-sharing ocean. Drinking my coffee, and thinking about a new relationship that was rapidly shifting up gears, I was moved by the lyrics about a lover’s promise to his beloved: ‘I’ll be the fire escape that’s bolted to the ancient brick/ Where you will sit and contemplate your day.’ It was then that I really had a sense of a kind of love deeper than anything I’d previously known. A partnership built, not just from affection and lust, but from respect and commitment. From the desire to build something bigger. The idea of sacrifice to gift someone strength. I didn’t just learn this from the music, the same way ‘Nothing Better’ wasn’t the only way I learnt how to heal my broken heart, but it gave me the space to imagine a future for my relationship.
We went to Venice on holiday later that year. She said yes.
Eighteen months later, I was in a hastily cleared picnic shed on the edge of a dam in northern NSW and, as my bride, beautiful in a glittering sequined off-white dress, started her walk down the aisle arm-in-arm with her father, that same version of ‘Brand New Colony’ was playing. Gibbard sang: ‘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/ And start a brand new colony.’ And as I write this, in my first year of till-death-do-us-part, we are in our brand new colony. Give Up was a small part of the map that got me here.
Liam Ferney’s most recent collection is Content (Hunter Publishing). His books have been shortlisted for a number of national awards. He is a poet, media manager and aspiring left back living in Brisbane.