The Postal Service: The Supergroup that Wasn’t

I had the opportunity to attend the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago this past weekend, and as expected, it was great (if expensive) fun. I certainly am in no position to pretend that I saw every performance that happened or that I was hustling from stage to stage so that I could establish my “superfan” credentials. (More power to critics like Greg Kot who, if you believe their reviews of such events, were in six places at once and saw every simultaneous performance. Personally, I prefer to have the occasional pause for an overpriced cold beer, and I’d rather hear a band’s whole set than just a few songs.) Still, the weekend festival provoked a number of interesting issues, and I’ll probably write a few posts this week.

For me, one of the most enjoyable performances of the weekend was the headlining set on Saturday by the Postal Service. Like many of my fellow festival-goers, I was grabbed by the low synth chords that open “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” and the performance was sheer joy from that moment. (Yes, there is a great deal of nostalgia in this, but I’ll leave that issue for a later post.) I’m not typically the sort of music fan who gets terribly obsessed with any particular band or album, so I must admit that it came as a bit of a surprise how moving it was to finally hear these 10-year-old songs brought to life.

But it was also surprising when Ben Gibbard announced from the stage, late in their set, that the Postal Service performances this weekend (the Grant Park set and Sunday’s Lolla afterparty at Metro) would be their “very last.” (He had also tweeted this shortly before their Saturday performance.) History has given us good reason to be skeptical of such pronouncements—recall, for instance, David Bowie’s misunderstood declaration that his 3 July 1973 performance at London’s Hammersmith Odeon would be his (i.e., Ziggy Stardust’s) last.

Gibbard’s announcement of the end of the Postal Service is all the more surprising, though, because this is a band that has consistently refused to be one. The story of the band is by now quite well known, beginning with a long-distance collaboration between Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello that eventually grew to include Rilo Kiley vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jenny Lewis. In 2003 they released the seminal indie synthpop album Give Up, a record that spawned a number of remixes and covers, but that was never followed up with another LP.

In a sense, this unusual career path makes Gibbard, Tamborello, and Lewis unsung geniuses of the record industry. They made a single record that grew to become one of Sub Pop’s all-time best sellers. They never added to their recorded legacy with a new album. And, most striking, they rereleased the same album on its 10th anniversary—to sparkling (if slightly skeptical) reviews. The Postal Service took a minimum of musical material and live appearances and spun themselves into one of the most the most successful and influential indie acts of the young century.

This would be a tremendous model for success in the music business, if only the Postal Service wasn’t so averse to their own existence. Seeing them live this weekend was tremendous, in part because of their great songs and unique sound, and in part because I didn’t really grasp just how versatile and talented was every member of the band. Each of the three core members (they were supported in this performance by Laura Burhenn from the Mynabirds) has a distinct musical personality. Jimmy Tamborello is a master of electronic sounds and beats, and in concert, his boyish enthusiasm is infectious; he makes it impossible to stand still or to be downcast during their songs. Ben Gibbard sings, plays guitar, and drums, and he excels at each of these; like Tamborello, he conveys pure joy of making music. Jenny Lewis is possibly the most enigmatic of the group. She is a tremendous singer and guitarist, and she adds to her already significant repertoire with work on synths and drums. She is also the “serious” member of the group—a role more commonly played by the usually male lead guitarist (think Richards vis-a-vis Jagger, or Page with Plant, or Ronson and Bowie)—as she only occasionally emerged from her intense musical focus to engage with Gibbard’s overtures to dance with her.

The Postal Service is thus that rare musical entity: a supergroup composed of successful, talented musicians whose abilities and personalities combine to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, yet that does not at all diminish the greatness of the parts. At least, they would be a supergroup if they ever allowed themselves to simply be a band.

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