They might pal around with Huey Lewis now, but the Postal Service were once considered ahead of their time. Their collaboration, in which they sent each other digital files, is routine today but felt futuristic then, even though they relied on snail mail and not the cloud. Songs from their one and only studio album, 2003’s Give Up, were used by countless commercials and indie films striving to seem hip, lending an imprimatur of subcultural currency for a few years when, no kidding, bookish tenderness could seem almost radical. Nine years later, the album officially went platinum.
When Sub Pop reissued Give Up as an expanded, 10th-anniversary edition, the record’s winsome twinkle was undimmed, and the reunited trio—Death Cab for Cutie singer-songwriter Ben Gibbard, Rilo Kiley leader Jenny Lewis, and glitchy electronic producer Jimmy Tamborello— headed out to play in front of the adoring crowds that had swelled during their long absence. A concert film from that tour, 2014’s Everything Will Change, showed that far from being Friendster-age relics, these songs still resonated deeply, and they had more to say.
Everything Will Change, the live album that recently landed on streaming services, is an audio version of that concert film, captured over two nights at Berkeley, California’s outdoor Greek Theatre. The 2014 film, interspersed with lighthearted if mostly unrevealing interview footage, demonstrated that a decade-old band anchored by a guy on a laptop had turned, improbable though it may once have seemed, into a consummate live act. You can’t see Lewis playing electric guitar with her teeth here, and the goofy interludes with Gibbard shooting hoops at Barclays Center are definitely kaputt. But these 17-year-old songs have time-traveled again, coming back to us during an age of silent performance spaces. A belated afterthought of a live album can’t compete with a concert film, any more than a concert film can live up to the real deal, but as a document of transformation, the record more than succeeds.
The Postal Service’s most joyful song, “Such Great Heights,” is in a sense about the impossibility of capturing the moment, and then trying through technology to defy those limits. Gibbard attempts “to leave this all on your machine” and ends up being unsatisfied with the low fidelity; at the same time, computer wizardry allows Gibbard to sing the song’s breathlessly overlapping verses without pausing for air. Live shows, like live albums, also rely on technical sleight-of-hand, but the presumed presence of an audience, gathered in real time, is transformative. When the Postal Service do “Such Great Heights” on Everything Will Change, near end of their main set, Gibbard relies on pre-recorded backing vocal, but the interplay between fans and band—feverish handclaps, round of applause for the stabbing guitar solo—has an almost alchemical effect. “Up until now, it’s just been a number of records sold and this potential to be a real band that we never really achieved,” Gibbard says in the concert film. Everything Will Change documents the Postal Service being made real onstage.
What little evidence remains of their early gigs suggests that the rudiments of the Postal Service’s compelling live show were already in place during their months-long initial run through small venues. Lewis ramps up the drama with her screen-kid star quality —in the film, she refers to herself as Gibbard’s “foil”—while his regular mid-song moves behind the drum kit brings needed dynamism. Fast-forward to the shows presented on Everything Will Change, and both players were seasoned festival warriors. Tamborello, along with working his trusty laptop, also rifles between melodica and Vocoder-style singing; when his unprocessed vocal makes a rare, bashful entrance, on climate-change reverie “Sleeping In,” there are wild cheers. Touring multi-instrumentalist Laura Burhenn, of Omaha indie-folk band the Mynabirds, rounds out the mix with keys, vibraphone, and backing vocals, particularly crucial for the multi-part call-and-response of songs like the weirdly romantic prepper fantasy “We Will Become Silhouettes.” Each well-known song is punched up, reinvigorated, and stretched out for wider spaces.
These accomplished performances give new life to recordings that for so long lived mainly in headphones. Melancholy, uptempo songs like “The District Sleeps Alone” or “Clark Gable”—the latter is the one where Gibbard unforgettably sings that he wants “life in every word/To the extent that it’s absurd”—grow into noise-streaked dance parties, as if fellow sentimental robots Hot Chip crashed a New Order show. A slower, more textured song like “Recycled Air” turns gorgeously lush, Yo La Tengo ba-ba-bas draped in Stereolab electro-frippery. Best of all is the self-aware back-and-forth of “Nothing Better.” Gibbard, as the besotted lover who can’t admit that he’s been dumped, might be positioned as the protagonist here—“Who here has had their heart taken out of their chest and stomped on?” he asks, by way of introduction—but Lewis’s nonchalant delivery as she shreds his oppressive wedding-bell delusions is simply exquisite. Gibbard can’t help but break down, laughing.
A clever setlist helps. The lone cover, a masterful Postal Service-ization of Beat Happening’s “Our Secret”—described by Gibbard here as “the greatest band in the world,” with Lewis on drums—draws a connection to the Pacific Northwest indie-pop legends’ deceptively simple, conversational yet suggestive pop storytelling and the Postal Service’s own. The encore begins with a “‘Heroes’”ed-out take on what true fans know is the original Postal Service song, “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan,” a collaboration between Gibbard and Tamborello’s Dntel project that foreshadowed their band.
Everything Will Change’s title phrase, the final refrain from utopian love song “Brand New Colony,” might’ve lodged itself in fewer heads than other Give Up lines, like “everything looks perfect from far away” or “your heart won’t heal right/If you keep tearing out the sutures.” But it hits hard as an encore-concluding, 8,500-strong audience singalong. Crowd participation can be cheesy, but listening to these en masse, near-a cappella voices, all holding forth about the inevitability of transience, it doesn’t feel that way.
Catch up every Saturday with 10 of our best-reviewed albums of the week. Sign up for the 10 to Hear newsletter here.