Let’s get one horrible-yet-informative pun out of the way right off the bat: On Friday night at the Barclays Center, the newly reunited Postal Service delivered. Big time. We were initially skeptical. A stadium tour based around just one (admittedly brilliant) album? Sounds fishy. And there’s an awful lot of nostalgia crammed into those ten songs. Sounds dangerous.
For those of you not born in the ’80s, the Postal Service’s sole release -2003’s Give Up- was our Dark Side Of The Moon, our Rumours, our Frampton Comes Alive. Yet unlike the Thrillers or the Sgt Peppers of the world, this record wasn’t really on everyone’s lips -just everyone’s stereo. For a time, it seemed like every alternative-minded teen had the album, and played it the background to make pre-calc homework bearable. In this low-key way, it became a major part of our adolescent soundscape. We might not know the names of all the songs, but we will know every damn word forever.
It’s been a decade since Death Cab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard teamed up with Dntel’s electro-production wizkid Jimmy Tamborello for the one-off collaboration. They worked independently, sending each other tracks on CD-Rs through (you guessed it) the U.S. Postal Service. The finished product was certified platinum last October, but the number of burnt copies handed out to friends during study hall is incalculable. Now in honor of the 10th anniversary reissue, the duo has joined forces once more to take their act on the road, including two nights at the Barclays Center.
It felt positively weird to think that this innocent music seemingly designed to be heard while sitting cross-legged on your bed was about to be played in an 18,000 seat arena. Could this possibly be the first steps towards The Great Cooperate Nostalgia Cash-In for our Millennial generation? Is this what it feels like for fans who first saw the Stones at a seedy London bar for the cost of a beer? Is our past being taken and sold back to us at a premium?
We’re not sure. But on a practical note, we were concerned about the band filling the massive venue. Maybe one night, but two? But the place is indeed packed to sold-out capacity. We’re surrounded by a very specific demographic of late 20-somethings, not terribly far removed from their younger Hot Topic-wearing selves. The scale of the crowd knocks us back. Prior to that, we assumed that the Postal Service was merely our thing. And that’s their gift: No matter how popular they became, they always felt like your private underground secret.
There’s no warning as the house lights abruptly dim. A soft synthesizer prelude gently wraps its way around the space, and for a brief moment we wonder if we accidentally wandered into an Enya show. Then the floor starts to shake with the familiar ultra-low bass tones opening “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” and the place predictably goes insane.
The audience apparently has an unspoken agreement to not “troll” the ludicrously over-earnest Gibbard, who greets the crowd like a rockstar Richie Cunningham with a cheery “Hiya, Brooklyn!” His wide-eyed enthusiasm is impossibly endearing. “Thanks for coming to this tiny venue and listening to us play music from ten years ago. We’re called the Postal Service and we have no fixed address,” he cracked. He jogs in place on an imaginary treadmill as he strums his Fender guitar. Tamborello stands on a riser behind him, lost in a sea of Macbook Pros and drum pads. They are joined by Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, who provided backing vocals on the original records, as well as Laura Burhenn of the Mynabirds rounding out the group on keyboards and harmonies.
The band kicks into “We Will Become Silhouettes,” and we feel like we’re smack in the middle in the most epic indie movie preview ever. Gibbard takes a seat at a vacant drum kit on the edge of the stage and plays a passionate break over the organ solo. Lewis tosses her Nets cap into the crowd, who sing along to the wordless clock-tower chime chorus. The room feels lighter. We feel lighter. It’s as if the gradual accumulation of years has been lifted off our backs, and we remember what it feels like to be young. Not a child, but truly youthful and vibrant. It’s a nerdy white-boy gospel revival.
To our surprise, the music does not seem so out of context in this gaudy sporting complex. Actually, it sounds incredible! An electric guitar squealing with feedback turns “Clark Gable” into an awesome piece of arena rock. Jenny and Ben tango together in center stage like a Mick and Keith with (more) sexual tension. And the bass beat is absolutely killer, with the Barclays’ domed roof essentially turning the venue into a gigantic sub-woofer. A tasteful fog machine and rather elegant light-show sets an almost rave-y vibe, encouraging the crowd to get on their feet. And they dance. They dance with abandon, as if every demon from our awkward teenage years has just been exorcised. Maybe growing up doesn’t have to exclusively suck, after all. We’re a room full of people who (likely) didn’t get laid in high school, suddenly getting a second shot at acceptance.
“Let this be a lesson to you budding musicians,” Gibbard says from the stage. “What you do is: make a record. Then you don’t do anything for ten years. And then you wind up at Barclays!” That’s a bit unfair to their musical day-jobs, but there is a grain of truth to that. Considering the vast majority of the crowd have never seen the Postal Service live, the concert is like opening a musical time capsule.
It’s impossible to talk about the Postal Service outside of the past tense, because that’s so clearly where their music resides. It wasn’t like they could surprise us with challenging deep cuts. There simply aren’t enough songs! You can’t help but know them all. Becoming a Postal Service Super Fan happens almost by accident. They obviously played Give Up in its entirety, and reached for their few B-sides (“A Tattered Line Of String” and “Be Still My Heart”) to pad out their 16-song set. They also performed “Our Secret,” a cover from the group Beat Happening, which Gibbard refers to as “the greatest band that ever lived.” Sure, they played their newly recorded “Turn Around,” but even that track had the air of a backward glance.
Eyes start to get wet towards the end of their set, as electronica-tinged love song “Such Great Heights” echos up to the box seats. The rapid beats are around the same tempo as a seventeen-year-old’s heart rate while asking a date to the Winter Snow Ball. Hell, the tune was practically the unofficial prom theme for our graduating class. We still remember how to play it on piano from that time we learned it to impress a girl (spoiler alert: it didn’t work). It means something. That song is what being in love sounded like at a very specific age, during a very specific time. And if you weren’t a part of it, that’s OK, too. It’s still a gorgeous song.
The band choose “Natural Anthem” to finish their set before kicking off an encore with “(This Is) The Dream Of Evan And Chan,” the 2001 Dntel track that featured Ben Gibbard and got the whole collaboration started in the first place. They close out with “Brand New Colony,” leaving us in a swirling echo of Gibbard and Lewis’ intertwined voices chanting “Everything will change.” It was a fitting benediction for an evening steeped in nostalgia. Things already have changed, but maybe it’s not all bad. 18,000 of us are joined together listening to the songs that got us through adolescent isolation and confusion. 18,000! Really makes your inner angsty teen feel less alone, huh?
Check out the complete set-list on the next page!
[Photo: Christiana Cefalu/VH1]