Song 363: The Postal Service, “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” (2003)

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When The Postal Service’s Give Up came out ten years ago, it sounded like a revelation. Beats, keyboards and synths blended with string samples and voices to make something that sounded both new and familiar. It sounded like the future, and in a way, it was (for better or worse).

At the time, I only vaguely knew about Death Cab For Cutie. The big draw for me was Jenny Lewis, then a member of Rilo Kiley, a band who I was obsessed with. Lewis sings some beautiful backup and duet vocals on the record, but Give Up, of course, belongs entirely to Jimmy Tamborello and Ben Gibbard. It continues to amaze me how cannily these two guys brought their exact skill sets to the project; Tamborello’s work as Dntel draws genuine emotion from clicks and clacks, and Gibbard, whether armed with an electric or acoustic guitar, can write a song that is guaranteed to break your heart.

“The District Sleeps Tonight” is the first song from Give Up, and it starts in a way that seems to say that it’s just the beginning of something big. Those low notes make the song creak to life, and Tamborello’s beats—which are somehow full of humanity, despite being totally synthetic—feel like fingers or toes moving, helping the song awake from a deep sleep. As opening lines go, “Smeared black ink/Your palms are sweaty/And I’m barely listening to last demands” is a great one. It’s like the opening to a noir novel—mysterious, intriguing, and dark, dark, dark.

Like the rest of Give Up, the chorus of “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” is pop at its most direct. The combination of that directness with the often chaotic digital mess underneath is, in my opinion, what makes this record so great. There’s a tension between those two sounds, and it reflects the tension in each song, even when the song is seemingly full of joy. In Gibbard’s hands, to his great credit, nothing is entirely happy.

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