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You get the feeling that Benjamin Gibbard never wanted to be a rock star. That he never hoped to be anything more than the guy who sits at the bar fantasizing about being a rock star. Back in the late '90s, while he was recording his first album with Death Cab for Cutie, the dude seemed happy to be just an anonymous kid from a rainy Washington town. But when Something About Airplanes debuted to a million shrieking emo fans, he was suddenly writing lyrics about a restless guy searching the newspapers' employment pages. That's the trouble with romantics: Tell them they've achieved their dreams, and they think that means they can no longer be dreamers.
Or maybe the dreamers are just afraid of becoming the person they'd dreamed of. Gibbard so steadfastly refuses to conflate the two on Give Up (Sub Pop), his new album with the Postal Service, that he creates an alter ego to deal with the dilemma: There's the get-shit-done realist who spent 2001 exchanging vocal samples through the mail with Jimmy Tamborello from the electronic pop group DNTL, the latter of whom wrote the music on his computer. And then there's his doppelgänger, the "I" of his songs, a classicist in the Stephin Merritt sense who writes his correspondence with an inkwell, plots the freckles in his girlfriend's eyes, and insists he'd still love you if you left him. But here's the tricky part: Tamborello's emotive twinklings, cooing like teenage laptops in love, evoke a world where everything has its own sweet echo and even Gibbard's loquacious twin sees a double image of himself. You'd think the Raelians were sending out long-distance dedications.
If art reflects life, then Gibbard's life is a house of mirrors. The narrator of "Clark Gable" wants to believe in love so badly that he asks his ex to pretend that they're a couple of sweethearts on the silver screen. The cameras roll, Tamborello cuts his dream Eno with a clapboard, and the pop-song protagonist Gibbard has become morphs into his own cinematic hero. Surrounded by emo frontmen bent on "keeping it real" with autobiographical confessions, Gibbard still believes that truth makes great fiction. If the whole city went up in flames outside his window, he'd be inside, watching the whole thing unfold on TV.
Still, Gibbard isn't fooled by his own delusions. As Oscar Wilde might say, he might find his way by moonlight, but he also glimpses the dawn before the rest of the world. Of course, he only sees the light when northwestern siren Jen Wood gives him a major wake-up call. On "Nothing Better," a he said/she said update of Human League's "Don't You Want Me," Gibbard places his way we were gushings on the highest pedestal--but as soon as the John Williams-worthy score soars in for the marriage proposal, Wood reminds him that their relationship wasn't as great as he remembers. "You're getting carried away feeling sorry for yourself/With these revisions and gaps in history," she scolds. Two songs later, her message finally sets in, leaving Gibbard wondering, "Do you ever get the fear/That your perfect verse is just a lie/You tell yourself to help you get by?"
If the answer is yes, is that such a bad thing? Maybe that's what making art, and appreciating it, is all about: rewriting yourself until you're the perfect hero in a love song. Breakups are boring, and the day-to-day drudgery of relationships is sock-foldingly mundane (though the good parts are as holy as Clark Gable makes them seem). Give Up suggests that a good love song is not about love--it's about infinite possibility. It's filled with every late-night answering-machine message you composed in your head but weren't brave enough to leave. Or the life you might have lived with the stranger who just left you sitting alone on the train. Or the Gone With the Wind clip that you view like a home video. It's reality, filtered through your imagination. And even if all that stuff is a lie, Gibbard will keep singing it until it's true.