Wednesday, August 7, 2013


A Love Letter to the Postal Service

All my life I've been a fan of temporality; everything is better when you know it will never happen exactly the same way again. But last weekend I saw the Postal Service play their penultimate set at Lollapalooza and since then I’ve been hit with thoughts that are both new and unwelcome, like “Take me back" and “I would do anything except kill a person to go back” and "Why am I crying into this sandwich?"

This is only partially based on the music. I am not claiming that Give Up, with its often-clumsy lyrics and constant reach for poignancy, is the greatest album of all time. I am also not claiming that I didn’t spend the entire set with my heartstrings shredding into technicolor, my great teenage musical cathexis alive again and punting me straight in the—bursts into tears for fourth time today.

I’m not embarrassed about it. There was nothing else like Postal Service before Postal Service, and for every Owl City they’ve created there are another dozen legitimate heavy hitters in their wake. Give Up was post-9/11 hurt and optimism encapsulated at a vital musical tipping point between analog (Gibbard sending his toplines via snail mail) and digital (Tamborello piecing the album together on his laptop)—an album as Zeitgeist-y as it was durable. Its influence is all over the bleeps and beats of today’s scene, and at their best the Postal Service mounted a staggering chemistry, something that was intimate and oceanic at once, exploding the personal into a universal in a way that is difficult to manage in any type of art.

But that sound was only new in 2003, and the Postal Service reunion tour had nostalgia as its lifeblood from the beginning. It’s less about the music itself than what the music evokes; probably it always is, maybe nostalgia is the root of music’s basic proposition. During the Renaissance, a type of herding song called Kuhreihen was banned among Swiss mercenaries fighting abroad because of how quickly it led to mal du Suisse, the original nostalgia. Today we choose our summer hits based on how strong we imagine their retroactive pull to be, and as the years roll on, it's as Chumbawumba once noted: we sing the songs that remind us of the good times, we sing the songs that remind us of the best times.

What does it mean to feel such intense nostalgia for an album that came out just a decade ago? I am not normally a customer at this store. I’ve always been suspicious of Youth Reminiscence—“In my day, little brother, we had dial-up Internet instead of this Comcast high-speed bundle”—and am averse to the idea that any change I’m old enough to witness could be meaningful at all. “Dating was so different before social media,” I imagine a 29-year-old saying to her 16-year-old cousin over coffee, and then I think about how I see my mom so infrequently and when I do she’s always like I miss you and I’m like But I’m right here in the passenger seat of your car, or how there were 120 million people alive in Europe in the 11th century alone and I’ll never know what any of them thought about anything. There doesn’t seem to be much point in getting pulled backwards within lives that are already infinitesimal.

Nevertheless, here it is—my first big bout of nostalgia, or actually it’s probably closer to the saudade: the longing you feel for someone whose whereabouts are unknown, something unlikely to return. And that aspect—not the missing itself, but something missing, and permanently—is what makes this flare-up so different than ordinary past-fondness. With this I can understand why doctors used to diagnose nostalgia in the Civil War era, why they used to look for it in the bones.

And I think I've found it: what I’m missing is not a time but an emotional ability, because when you are a person who is much more comfortable with music-related feelings than any other kind, the bands you attach to become metonymous with parts of your heart. And for me, Postal Service represents enchantment detached from love or chemistry, the feeling of being enamored with the world without expecting anything from it. I didn’t realize how long I’d been without that, or how much I’d been missing it, or how much that for me was the defining experience of being a young person—those feelings had gone unarticulated until last Saturday night.

It's strange to come full circle on something and realize that you've changed, and not for the better. That show was the end of an period that started when I couldn’t have imagined that beautiful things would ever scare me, when I couldn’t understand why people would ever shy away from love. Because back then I only knew it as music; I hadn't learned what's so dumbly obvious now, that love is much more complicated than the kind delivered through headphones rather than flesh, the kind that waits a decade for you until you’re ready to jump crying into its arms in the middle of Chicago under the city lights with forty thousand strangers who all came there to say I remember how good this was, and goodbye.

Previously: "A Night with Sugar Ray"

Photo credit swimfinfan/Flickr

43 Comments / Post A Comment


I am deeply, pathologically unsentimental--but "There doesn’t seem to be much point in getting pulled backwards within lives that are already infinitesimal" makes me need to breathe into a paper bag a little big.


@LilRedCorvette ...I meant to type "little bit," but the typo is so apt that I'll let it stand. #lolFreud

Sophia Jacob

Aw, man. I JUST sent a postcard, too. Maybe I'll write an actual letter and surprise him with extra mail. :) @me


I actually like this @t


As I push towards 40, I find myself more and more defensive about the groups I loved in my 20's, when I actually had the time and disposable income, and energy to love new music.
I mean why listen to some young jerks in tight pants when Radiohead's 'OK Computer' and Bad Religion's 'Suffer' where the best albums ever made and will never be topped?

I have become that which I hated in my youth. An old man who clings to his youth.


Well all's I knows is that when I moved to DC and my college girlfriend and I broke up, "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" got a few too many spins in the ol' iTunes.


@Emby Oh man, my obsession with that song knew no bounds.


@Emby I was always weirdly resistant to the Postal Service for some reason (I think it's just Ben Gibbard) but if you were in your late teens or early 20s at the time, it's almost inevitable that you have some intense memories tied into that band and that song in particular.

we all want to be big stars

@Emby Right? This album was so, so perfect for early-00s me. It was like they were singing about these amazing things that I was only just realizing at the time...


@Emby haha remember when bands could afford to live in dc?


(he sobbed into his Hot Topic Minor Threat T-shirt)


Actually while we're on the nostalgia train I remember coming to visit DC in like 2003. We stayed on the floor of the drummer from Black Eyes in a "kinda rough neighborhood" called Adams Morgan and I got to check out this cool new store called Whole Foods and saw The Dismemberment Plan's "last show" in Ft. Reno Park (though they had another one b/c it was raining).


I heard Dischord is a wine bar now.


@Emby I also moved to DC(-area northern Virginia, hah) after college- listened to this album the whole drive from Texas, had just broken up with my semi-boyfriend who had given me the album. It makes me feel all the feels.


@Emby I live in DC now and this description is making me laugh so hard, which may not be what you intended.


@stuffisthings You can't be what you were.


I was SO SO excited for this tour bc I have a lottttt of feelings about this album, but then they kinda sucked at Barclays :/


I was initially disappointed when I realized this was not going to be a letter to the United States Postal Service, but I read it anyway and am glad.

"...why they used to look for it in the bones" is so good I felt it in my bones.


As a student of osteology, I'm certain nostalgia is located in the bones - it's deeper than flesh and part of our most basic makeup. Memory is stored in bone, wrapped up in little osteocytes, your whole life is written in your bones. Those Civil War doctors were onto something.


@TheMnemosyne and I love how if you look at the osteocytes at the right magnification, they look like tree rings!


@TheMnemosyne When I was a kid I was a religious fundamentalist. High school was the time it all started to disintegrate. Postal Service's bleeps and blips were the soundtrack to this process of me splintering apart and fragmenting into hundreds of bits.

At the end of it I was digging fossils out of the Utah landscape in front of some local FLDS; picking out the scraps of bone and gluing the worthwhile ones back together.


When I see the bands I loved in the early aughts it's so delightfully miserable. At 20 I thought everyone would inevitably become their fullest, most perfect and happy selves if they just tried their best. I believed I would get what I deserved, which was everything I wanted. It's nice to feel that way again, if only because I'm three whiskeys in and they're playing Hi-Speed Soul.

Litebrite Idea

@tmmoore I am approximately 2 X 20, and I still sometimes suffer from the delusion that "everyone would inevitably become their fullest, most perfect and happy selves if they just tried their best." I see people who do, and I think, "That guy in one of my favorite bands, and my friends' poet husband, and a girl who picked on me in high school did...why can't yoooouuuu" about people I care about who seem to want to stay far away from being their best self. Of course, I'm still a work in progress...


I always get depressed reading things like this, because I've never really cared about anything enough to have any similar feelings.


@Onymous I have, but only about books - so it's not quite so melancholy.


This is so perfect and makes me wish I had seen them. For me this album means never getting back the feeling of rapturously staring at the crack in my bedroom ceiling with headphones on, hearing the pops between L and R. Also, Brazil has a national day of Saudade. and it's an incredibly fun and nasal word to say.


I bought the first Postal Service album a few days after it came out in Athens, GA, simply by random chance. Someone in the record store was like "Oh, the guy from Death Cab for Cutie has this new side project, it's electronic." We played that CD on repeat the whole way back, it was great! But my Postal Service era pretty much ended when we arrived back in Gainesville, FL, after which I had to endure like six years of hearing it every fucking place I went.

Still brings back fond memories of going to the same "Indie Night" every week, complaining about how terrible it was and counting how many times they had played The Postal Service in each hour. Sneaking into the same swimming pool each night afterwards. And just generally being young & dumb.


Preach it, girl.


To me, I'm reminded of sitting in a coffee shop writing code or working on papers for grad school with Postal Service playing in the background. I really love them, but ultimately wasn't inspired enough by a single album to see them perform at Lolla. Do you guys know about their issues with the actual US Postal Service? It's an amazing story.

I chose to see The Cure the next night instead, and I remembered why when I was standing there: So many good songs from so many good albums + music that isn't just of a time and place but spans decades and actually holds up as really good, really well-written pop music + years of touring and true appreciation for their fans. That all added up to a really good show, and I was glad that I went to see them even though I'd seen them in concert before.

honey cowl

Aghhh. We Will Become Silhouettes. For real.

Litebrite Idea

Oh, those last two paragraphs! Especially: "bands you attach to become metonymous with parts of your heart" and "I hadn't learned what's so dumbly obvious now, that love is much more complicated than the kind delivered through headphones rather than flesh" Sigh. I do still experience the enchantment you describe, I think *because* I've seen shying away from love and beautiful things becoming scary so very, very, often, and I have to find the hope and bliss somewhere.

Such a beautifully written piece. Thank-you.

Mal Pal@facebook

This was so great Jia. Your writing always makes me think.


Jia, you're the best! I had a burned copy of this album in my tiger print CD case I lugged everywhere with me as a teenager. I found it in the back of my closet the first time I came home from college and listened to Postal Service on repeat driving around my horrible home town with my little brother. I so wish I was in the U.S. so I could go see them.


I registered just to say how much I liked this article and your writing. You made my morning.


It is a great love letter. Why she sad. I feel about her strongly. Teeth whitening I think and confirm that she is a nice one.


Wow,it is a rare one. I like this one.I have shared this post with others. Foreclosed for sale in Detroit


This is a great music. I have downloaded this one. They are so popular for this. I am also a big fan of them. translation companies London


My 5 years old small girl also has written something like that to the messenger service around to tell message to the God. It is really interesting


Sadness is too dangerous. Specially sadness in the early age can cause various mental problems. Parents should know about this and do accordingly.


I have watched this video. And i like their song. keep going with more info.


I liked that one. I am a fan of them. Their music sense is awesome also. consider a visit here

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