Like few other acts of the 21st century, the Postal Service were one of those acts you really had to be there for. The duo, comprised of laptop-pop producer Jimmy Tamborello and star indie frontman (if such a descriptor can be used non-oxymoronically) Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, came along at a time when the previously sizable chasm between underground pop music and traditional independent rock was getting smaller, and though it was surprising to hear one of the most recognizable voices in indie singing corny love songs over saccharine-sweet bleep-bloop beats, it wasn’t all that jarring either.
Soon, thanks to the success of shows like The O.C. and movies like Garden State, whose popular indie-heavy soundtracks would break artists like The Shins and Spoon to entirely new audiences, crossover indie successes were a much more common occurrence. But the Postal Service were arguably the first, and certainly one of the most successful of these word-of-mouth underground successes. Their debut album Give Up certainly ranks as one of the most unlikely platinum albums of the ’00s, but it took nearly a decade to reach that status, seemingly only spread by high school friends and college dorm-mates sharing the album with one another.
Of course, it had a big single to help sell their case. The historically catchy “Such Great Heights” was about as popular as a song can be without ever actually being a hit—the song never charted anywhere, but remains known by a whole lot of people, and actually went gold separately from the album. That’s largely because though the song was never really on radio, it was just about everywhere else—TV shows like Veronica Mars and Grey’s Anatomy (where it briefly served as the theme), commercials for Target, Ask.com and (appropriately) UPS, and movies like the aforementioned Garden State (via a folky cover from Iron & Wine, one of dozens of artists to take the song on). “Heights” was a 21st-century type of “hit,” one advanced over internet sharing and multi-platform exposure, rather than conventional big-budget promotion and incessant radio/MTV play.
The popularity of Give Up and “Such Great Heights” snowballed to a point where it seemed like the group’s next effort might be a mainstream smash like the indie world had rarely seen before. But a follow-up never materialized. Gibbard went back to Death Cab For Cutie, where he had his most successful album to date with the platinum-selling Plans, and Tamborello recorded a couple more albums under his dNTEL alias (where he first collaborated with Gibbard, for the excellent “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan”), but the Postal Service were effectively dead to rights, with the two members being disarmingly casual about not taking advantage of their unexpected success as collaborators. “The anticipation of the second record has been a far bigger deal for everybody except the two of us,” explained Gibbard, frustratingly. “There never really was a plan to do a second album.”
Gradually, that much-dreaded “anticipation” died out, and today, memories of the Postal Service’s moment in the sun are faint. The duo’s laptop-pop sound has dated fairly poorly—and to be honest, it sounded kind of cheap even back then—and with Dr. Luke and his ilk running the sound of pop music in the 2010s, the skittering beats and heavy synths of Give Up sound downright quaint by comparison. With the multi-media omnipresence of “Such Great Heights” long faded away, and no home for it on any kind of repertory radio, if you weren’t around for the Postal Service in 2003, you would be easily forgiven for not knowing they ever even existed.
However, nearly ten years after their breakthrough, the group finally took proactive steps this morning to remind pop and indie fans of their existence. Billboard reports that the duo will be reuniting in advance of the tenth-anniversary reissue of Give Up, and though they will not be recording new music or touring extensively, they will at the least be playing their first live date of the ’10s at this year’s Coachella Music Festival. (“There are no plans to make a second record…I can’t say that enough,” protested Gibbard in October. OK, OK, Ben, we get it.) From a duo who often seemed irritated by those who insisted on remembering that they used to be a thing as a duo, it’s a big step.
It will be interesting to see if the now 20-and-30-somethings that fell for the Postal Service ten years ago still care about their impossibly sincere brand of emotive, tech-y pop music, or if they will have outgrown them, like they outgrew making mix CDs for crushes and arguing about whether Seth should have chosen Anna or Summer during the O.C.‘s first season. In any event, news of a Postal Service reunion will certainly bring back a whole lot of memories for those of us around for and impacted by their brief reign, and will undoubtedly have us tapping out the intro to “Such Great Heights” on any hard surface we can find as we struggle for weeks on end to get the song out of our heads. Summer always was way cooler than Anna, anyway.