From 1999 until the summer of 2004, I listened (almost exclusively) to metal. I regret nothing. Cocooning yourself in the hostility of others is a great way to coast through your high school years, a time of ludicrously inflated importance that we all have to trudge through whilst trying to figure things out we’re too young to get a handle on anyways. It’s kind of a drag, but you know what makes it *not* a drag? Morbid Angel, that’s what. And so for five years that was me. Head down. Horns high.
But one can’t subsist on metal alone for too long without repercussions (I was going to make some jokes about music, and nutrients, and metal, with iron as a punchline of sorts, but I couldn’t bring it together – imagineers, run wild with the possibilities!). And so, in 2004, the summer between my freshmen and sophomore year of college, spurned by some unseen force, I decided to lift my head up and march towards some new horizons. There were three albums I procured “extra-legally” that summer which began this new journey for me, and they were: Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, and The Postal Service’s Give Up.
The first two albums on that list are critical darlings. They routinely get put on “Best Of” lists, cited for the influence they have had on “[the/a] scene”, and they get called things like “landmark” and “monumental” in print with some regularity. They people who say and do these things aren’t wrong. But The Postal Service’s Give Up is different, and when I first heard that trio of records, Give Up was by far my favorite. It didn’t ask anything of you other than to come at it with a sincere heart. It wasn’t obtuse, or sullen (even though the lyrics frequently are, the songs themselves are anything but). It wasn’t sneering or mean-spirited. And after four years of listening to stuff like this , it was, quite frankly, exciting in a way that music hadn’t been exciting to me in a long while.
Give Up was released in 2003, and remains the only album The Postal Service ever released. A second album seemed a foregone conclusion. Give Up is the second highest-selling album in Sub Pop’s history, behind only Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach. But a second album never materialized. Give Up is it. It’s a great album, but it’s not one that’s garnered more and more accolades with each passing year (Pitchfork Media, in a rare display of temporal consistency, awarded both the original 2003 release of the album and the 2013 reissue the same score, an 8.0). And yet the band’s brief coda this year made a great deal of waves – rightfully so. So when Ben Gibbard tweeted that The Postal Service was wrapping up for good after their two scheduled Chicago shows were finished, the tickets I had for their Lollapalooza aftershow at the Metro went from being “probably the last opportunity to see the band for a while” to “the band’s final show ever.”
And I know. To paraphrase Trainspotting, there’s “last shows” and last shows – which kind will this be? No one knows for sure. But I keep coming back to that second album, and how it never arrived, and how easy it would’ve been for the band to push it out into the world, even if it wasn’t great, knowing full well that it would move units and receive instant acclaim by the virtue of its being. So for now, I’m inclined to believe the finality.
The Metro is a medium-sized venue in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, right up the street from Wrigley Field. Its capacity is 1,150. It’s a small stage for a Lollapalooza headliner, regardless of who they are. Needless to say, the show sold out in a matter of minutes.
The opening band, Mates of State, took the stage promptly at 11. The audience was far more responsive to them than I initially had guessed they would have been, considering that most of the people waiting in line to get in to the venue alongside myself and my girlfriend didn’t even know there *was* an opening band on the bill. I don’t know. Maybe those people were all slamming drinks by the bar out of boredom during their set. Or maybe they enjoyed it. Personally, I thought Mates of State were solid, but nothing special – which coincidentally is how I felt that last time I listened to one of their albums. But they got the blood flowing, and after a 40 minute set, they were finished, and the crowd packed itself in and inched closer to the stage, waiting. Then the house lights dimmed.
Now a band with one ten-song album and a handful of odds n’ ends tracks wasn’t likely to have much in the way of variation when it comes to their setlist; I hadn’t bothered to check what they had been playing at other shows during this reunion tour because of that. But before things started, I knew intuitively knew two things:
1) The first song they played pretty much had to be District Sleeps Alone Tonight
2) The next song they played would NOT be Such Great Heights
I was right on both counts.
District Sleeps Alone Tonight began (with its blocky, unassuming bassline), and the crowd sang along, with such intensity that at times it was heard to hear Ben Gibbard above the fray. I’ve been to a lot of shows where the audience sings along to the music, but their participation usually needs to be coaxed out of them, and mostly, it’s cursory singing, excalamitory “whoa!’s” and “yeah!’s” peppered through a bridge or a chorus. But here, the audience sang most everything, every song, every line – and they did so voluntarily.
Some songs, of course, were sung louder than others. The singing was pretty constant throughout the first three songs of the set (District Sleeps Alone Tonight, We Will Become Silhouettes and Sleeping In), but you could tell the audience was still getting a handle on the two new songs, Turn Around and A Tattered Line of String, both of which were included on Give Up’s 2013 reissue. Those songs represent a taste of what a second Postal Service album may have sounded like; they existed as unfinished demoes for said abandoned second album, and for the reissue, the band was compelled to finish them. Their performances were pretty much a given, and they fit into the setlist like a glove.
But let’s back up. I want to talk about Sleeping In for a second, because people crap on this song all the time, and it needs some defending. Okay, yes, if you just print out the lyrics and look at them, what you’ll see will be kind of terrible. But a song is much more than it’s words, even if you don’t like them. Sleeping In, like most good songs, evokes something. Musically, it sounds like an early morning sunrise seeping into
a bedroom somewhere. The song makes me feel that; it conveys that idea to me. One could wax on for ages about the emotional elements of music, but what it boils down to is the dissemination of information.
Oh, and newsflash: all bets are off for whatever aesthetics you might think should follow lyrics that begin with the line “Last night I had the strangest dream…” – even if the next line is “where everything was exactly how it seemed.” Not everything can be Ed Tom Bell’s monologue at the end of No Country For Old Men, and not everything should be. Yes, lyrically Sleeping In is a little clunky, and awkward, but what isn’t when you’re just waking up? People hate the lyrics in this song with an alarming passion, but I don’t know – I find them kind of endearing, like someone just woke up and felt the need to share what went on in their head while they were sleeping quickly, before they forgot it, and all the rhymes just kind of tumbled out as they are. So to hear hundreds of people sing along to “Don’t wake me, I plan on sleeping in” in unison with the band made me feel like I was among good company.
Midway through the set, the band stopped to do a cover of Beat Happening’s Our Secret, a song I know absolutely nothing about but which the band visibly had a great time performing. That’s actually something that stuck with me about the show in general: even though it was their last, it wasn’t maudlin or anything. It was a spirted performance, especially from guitarist/vocalist Jenny Lewis, who danced about the stage with kinetic enthusiasm. The audience responded in kind. The notion of finality hung in the air, but everyone snaked around it. The band hardly spoke to the audience during the performance, and when they did, it was typically Ben Gibbard who did the speaking, most of which was to thank the audience for showing up (cue MASSIVE cheers). Some songs were given a perfunctory introduction (the lead-in to Nothing Better: “this is a tale of woe!”), but by and large, they just dove right into a new song from the end of the one they’d just finished.
Even though I basically knew which songs the band would be playing by way of their limited catalog, the show still managed to surprise me on ocassion – not by what was played, but how it was played. I’ve always sung the praises of Give Up’s back half (there’s some really forward-thinking songs on there), but the band’s performance of This Place Is A Prison was one of the highlights of the night for me. James Tamborello’s programming in that song is foggy and abstract, and when Gibbard hopped behind the drum kit to pound out that ending rhythm while singing the final bit of the song’s chorus (“What does it take? How long must I wait?”), an eerie energy creeped into the room. For a few minutes, The Postal Service sounded vaguely like a subdued Nine Inch Nails. No other part of any other song they played that night possessed that same air (speaking of possessed, that’s kind of what it reminded me of: Death Cab For Cutie’s I Will Possess Your Heart).
Such Great Heights was coming last. Last song of the encore. Or so I thought (technically, I was right – more on that in a bit). It’s unquestionably the band’s flagship song, and it’s been one of the most visible “indie” songs of the past ten years; it’s appeared in the TV shows Veronica Mars and Grey’s Anatomy, in the film Garden State (in the form of a molasses-dipped cover courtesy of Sub Pop labelmates Iron & Wine), and in TV commercials for Target, M&M’s, Ask.com, Kaiser Permanente, Telstra, and UPS (not, sadly, USPS). The music video for the song was used as a template by the video’s directors as a commercial for Apple without the band’s consent. It’s one of those songs that a lot of people know, even if they don’t know they know it. It’s pure pop, the music zipping and whizzing past you at great speeds while you’re pleasantly anchored to the unfettered, earnest vocals (Gibbard has stated that, of all the songs he’s written, Such Great Heights is the only one with a positive outlook on love).
The band did not play Such Great Heights last, but second-to-last; the feathery, morse code beeps that begin the song started slowly, speeding up gradually as they approached their destined tempo. That song, in that environment with all those people, produced a high that I could never put into words; it also made me woozy, and I spaced out for most of Natural Anthem, and before I knew it, the band was exiting stage right. It was now almost 1am. The inevitable encore was coming. I knew they were going to play Brand New Colony (it was the only song on Give Up they hadn’t played), but there was one song I was hoping they’d play and I wasn’t sure that they would – and as the first song of the encore, they did. I got to hear (This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan live.
People who know The Postal Service know that Ben Gibbard is from Death Cab For Cutie. Most folks know that Jenny Lewis was in Rilo Kiley before they disbanded. But a lot of people are unfamiliar with James Tamborello’s project Dntel and his work in Figurine. Some quick history: The Postal Service came about due to Ben and James’ collaboration on (This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan, a song which appears at the end of Dntel’s 2001 album Life Is Full of Possibilities. It’s quite possibly the dream that whoever resides in Sleeping In is trying to recount. It’s hazy and melodious, often at the same time. It begins and ends in cascades of noise whirring up and winding down, bringing fragments of some people and their lives into temporary focus. It’s also quite possibly the best song these two musicians have ever made together. I later did some googling and discovered that why yes, of course they were going to play this song live; they played it at every other show. But not knowing in advance that it was coming (that, coupled with a reworked intro and outro performed solely on guitar) just made it better. *I* was singing this song, every word of it, but most people around me weren’t. They seemed poised instead to tackle the end of Brand New Colony, which immediately followed and devolved into a lovely little singalong (“Everything will change. Ooooooo…..”).
And then, after all the voices died down, and the applause and cheering had kicked in, something happened. The beeps from Such Great Heights began again, already primed to full speed. Gibbard announced that “not only will this be the last song of the tour, but this will be our last song ever.” And so for the final song of their final live performance, the band played Such Great Heights – for the second time that night. It was a gift from the band to us, but it was as much for them as it was for anyone else. You couldn’t ask for a better way to close the book on something. And when it was over, the four of them took a bow, shared a hug, and left the stage for good. The house lights went up, the muzak kicked in, and everyone merged into a formless procession headed towards the exit. Outside, the air was crisp for Chicago in summer. My girlfriend and I grabbed our biked and headed north up Clark St. to our home. I had to wake up for work in less than five hours. But that night, I dreamt of sleeping in.
The Postal Service final show setlist:
The District Sleeps Alone Tonight
We Will Become Silhouettes
Be Still My Heart
Our Secret (Beat Happening cover)
This Place Is a Prison
There’s Never Enough Time
A Tattered Line of String
Such Great Heights
(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan (Dntel cover)
Brand New Colony
Such Great Heights