Listening to Give Up, the debut of two guys who call themselves The Postal Service, you might not guess that aesthetic anxiety surrounds the music they make. The Postal Service offer what people in the ’80s termed synthpop, a name arising out of how the music’s salient characteristic derived not from the imperfect ministrations of a live band—sleek or warty, brilliant or dull—but by the unerring manipulation of an inanimate computer. Unlike in 20th-century classical music, where electronics were granted their own real if sparsely unattended compositional space, synthpop stirred up drama in excess of its actual occurrence, cause, or effect. Twenty-five years after young English rock musicians swapped punk for the legacy of Brian Eno—after U.S. hip-hoppers restyled synthpop from the ground up and international dance music shed the slightest vestiges of authentic worry—suspicions still arise when anyone who’s ever been in the same room as an acoustic guitar “goes electronic.” Blame the famous enormous margin for numbing synthetic mediocrity. But this presumption, at least in America, almost always travels in the same pejorative direction; you might just as reasonably fear, given the less famous but quite real margin for numbing live-band mediocrity, that someone is going to “go roots.”
In 2003, when Ben Gibbard, a Seattle songwriter and member of the indie-rock band Death Cab for Cutie, and Jimmy Tamborello, a Los Angeles electronicist who has recorded under the name Dntel, collaborate through the mail and fashion synthpop, you don’t exactly get a pop-music scandal on par with Neil Young’s 1982 Trans or U2’s 1997 Pop. In fact, the hip old indieland convolutionist inference is that, given Gibbard’s rock pedigree, his synthpop immersion with The Postal Service only demonstrates his ultra-cool instincts. This gloss further illustrates the one-way synthpop presumption; you could just as logically deduce that Tamborello’s stomach for trad pop-rock reveals how sentimental at least some of his instincts are.
The 10 songs on Give Up, at any rate, prove that, in a medium like pop music, where sound is supreme, synthpop offers a way to disperse purely sonic narratives and redirect attention onto verbal and melodic and even—as hip-hoppers and dance folks realize—rhythmic ones; it’s a presentation that Stephin Merritt, who infraudulently got himself crowned king of underground songwriters a couple of seasons ago, figured out. Give Up is like a contemporary version of a piano-and-voice recital. The album hits people who love the sound extravaganzas of overdubbed guitar symphonies, can’t hang with the folkiness full-service singer-songwriters inevitably preserve, and expect melodic flair and beats, yet sometimes want to hear words.
The audience gets fluidly sung, odd-ass cerebral love songs such as “The District Sleeps Tonight,” in which a recently abandoned guy lands in Washington, where the spacious oppression of inside-the-Beltway residential parking lots exacerbates the pain of his break-up, or “Clark Gable,” where a guy in London hires a girl to play Claire Danes in the movie he improvises to experience a grand, cinema-worthy romance. Fans get Tamborello, sensationally, enacting the rhythms of fencing on “Recycled Air,” as string pads and bass beats duel with different time signatures. They get “Nothing Better” (imaginatively based on the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”), in which a woman, hilariously, tells a man, “I’ve made charts/And graphs that should finally make it clear/I’ve prepared a lecture on why I have to leave.” They get a refined facsimile of pure pop called “Such Great Heights.” Not bad for mere synthpop.