The Postal Service: Such Great Heights

such-great-heights

Definitely in the discussion for greatest one-off album off all time, Give Up by The Postal Service was the sole output of the collaboration between Death Cab For Cutie‘s Ben Gibbard and Dntel (Jimmy Tamborello). The album released in February, but on January 21, 2003, they released the lead single (and best known of their hits), “Such Great Heights.”

The song introduces the outfit’s particular brand of upbeat glitch pop, written and primarily performed by Tamborello. Gibbard’s signature vocals are a perfect match for the dreamy hyper-idealized lyrics, imbuing the song with a lilting sweetness sublimely suited to lyrics such as:

I’m thinking it’s a sign
That the freckles in our eyes
Are mirror images
And when we kiss, they’re perfectly aligned
And I
 have to speculate
That God himself did make
Us into corresponding shapes,
Like puzzle pieces, from the clay.

The song is four-and-a-half minutes of creamy pop confection, a love song to an absent lover, a rumination on the inability of technology to fill that gap. It is a pretty, major-key affair whose happy music offsets the melancholy of the second verse while melding perfectly with the soaring hope of the chorus. Though with subsequent listens, even the chorus is tinged with skepticism: “Everything looks perfect from far away,” could be interpreted to mean that distance obscures the flaws that are most apparent in those we love.

The otherwise unreleased b-side, “There’s Never Enough Time,” continues the electronic glitch pop of the first cut, but with a single, simple lyric – one line – that comes off as a random thought, a drop in a stream of consciousness: “In due time we’ll finally see there’s barely time for us to breathe.” The song comes off the way a lot of b-sides used to come off in the golden era of the 45 – a throwaway track, a half-formed idea. That’s not derision, but there’s a reason one was released as a single and the second was tacked on here and not even included on the album.

The last two tracks on the CD-single are where this disc takes the path less traveled. Rather than include another song or two from the upcoming full-length release, the decision was made to include acoustic covers of two Postal Service songs by labelmates The Shins and Iron & Wine.

The Shins version of the post-apocalyptic “We Will Become Silhouettes” leads off, but it doesn’t really gel. The acoustic arrangement seems not to suit the band and James Mercer never sounds certain of the lyrics. The whole production feels rushed. But the song still reminds me of a single panel from the epic The Watchmen.

silhouettes

On the other hand, Iron & Wine’s take on “Such Great Heights” lives up to the title. I’ve talked to friends who prefer his take on the song to the original. I even knew someone who swore to me that this was the original. He delivers the lyrics soto voce accompanied only by his finger-picked guitar. His near whisper is accentuated by either harmonized overdubs or an echo-effect in parts, giving this take a more haunting, ethereal feel than The Postal Service’s version. As a cover, it’s an instant classic, one of those few covers where a listener could make a legitimate argument that it surpasses the original.

The single itself is included on the main album and the Iron & Wine cover is included on one of his own releases. Thus, as with most CD-single releases, this is really only a worthwhile addition for obsessive completists. By which standard, of course, it’s worthwhile to me.

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