It takes sound and meaning to make a word. Remove either one and you're left with a morphological shell; combine them in just the right way and, well, you're communicating. This formula applies to pop music, too. Great lyrics can turn a rote melody or an empty riff into an epiphany; conversely, a chorus of "Baby, baby, I love you" can ring like Rilke in the right instrumental context. But usually these components of sound and meaning are not so neatly distinguished. Pieces overlap and lines become blurred in the process of collaboration, and the typical pop band winds up sounding like what it is: a bunch of people seeking an organic give-and-take equilibrium between what a song sounds like and what it's supposed to mean.
The Postal Service is not a typical pop band, however. One guy writes and records the music. He sends it through the mail to the other guy, who writes and records the lyrics. The two halves are then stuck together. That's it. Seems simple enough, and it is. But in this isolation of sound and meaning, the synergy between the two becomes more pronounced, their roles augmented, their power to communicate amplified.
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Jimmy Tamborello, mastermind of the Los Angeles avant-electronic project Dntel, is the Postal Service's sound guy. Ben Gibbard, leader of Seattle's indie-rock combo Death Cab for Cutie, is the word man. Give Up is the duo's inaugural full-length disc, and at first listen, it bears a similarity to the fey, clever electro-pop of Magnetic Fields or Her Space Holiday. Drum loops emerge out of fogs of digital static; synthesized blips jump through time and space like quantum particles. But when Gibbard's vocal patterns are layered over the music, they're like decoding devices, picking out hidden rhythms and melodies and assembling them into a coherent pop syntax. Songs like "Recycled Air" and "We Will Become Silhouettes" perfectly splice the fragile human voice with the sharp, frigid tones of microcircuitry, each intensifying the essential vulnerability of the other. On "Such Great Heights," Gibbard seems to be subconsciously alluding to his working relationship with Tamborello: "I have to speculate that God himself did make us into corresponding shapes/Like puzzle pieces from the clay." The overall result is as dry and clinical as the click of a metronome, and it should be; split in half by both concept and geography, the Postal Service is an experiment, a theoretical abstraction brought to life. Let's hope this cell keeps dividing.