Sometimes the passage of time feels so slow and yet so fast, so infinite, so undefinable. I am perhaps feeling that more than ever now that I’m in my 40s and time seems to keep barreling forward whether I like it or not. (Truth be told, aging doesn’t really bother me, I don’t mind my salt and pepper hair or that I now get to laugh at myself while being the cranky older person who tells “when I was your age” style stories.) I’m also feeling it as a lot of landmark albums of my adolescence and young adulthood are starting to have 20th, 25th, and 30th anniversaries. I’ve spent more than half my life with some of these records, they’ve defined huge parts of my musical tastes and shaped large parts of who I am and how I see the world.
So it would happen that I’m feeling that way now as I think back to some 20 years ago, to the day I was handed a burned CD by a girl I had a brief college fling with (that of course ended badly) who said “it’s the guy from Death Cab, it sounds like Nintendo.” It was a copy of Give Up and I had no idea at the time what I was holding in my hands. Indie rockers doing side electro things doesn’t seem so unusual now, or even electronics being heavily incorporated into a main project, but back then it felt like something new and exciting, some uncharted territory we were setting off to explore.
Stereogum posted a great article last week that gives more details behind the making of the record. It talks background and gives a bit of a history of that time, recalling things I had either forgotten or never knew because I was just dipping my toes into the waters of indie at the time this was released after years of coming from punk and DIY. I had been exposed to a few electronic things via artists like Le Tigre (and Kathleen Hanna’s lo-fi electro solo album as Julie Ruin before that) and Atom and his Package, and I took a very early shine to the Gorillaz pretty much from day one, but other than that, I really didn’t put much stock in electronic music at all. Give Up was the first album that was less “these people from punk bands are making a thing so it’s acceptable to me” or “a guilty pleasure since ‘Song 2’ is cool” and more “I really could get into electronic music.” In the years that followed I explored a lot of ambient and downtempo artists, trip-hop and other genres alongside what would become “Big Indie,” as the Stereogum article calls it, only returning to straight up punk and heavier music again around 2010.
Though most people think I’m “just a punk,” this is an important album in my musical journey and development and more than that, it had a massive cultural impact. To quote Chris Deville of Stereogum “Even those who think the album is wimpy or chintzy or radically front-loaded, you can’t deny its anthropological impact,” a statement I think is super on point.
I listened to the album on and off over the years, but I realized it had been a while since I’d listened to the whole thing front to back. With the 20th anniversary looming, I figured it was time to sit down with it once again and type up some thoughts on each track. These are random thoughts and silly anecdotes, and much like my sprawling track by track of Green Day’s 1994 landmark album Dookie, it is meant to be personal. This is not presented as fact or a monolith or “music journalist talk” or anything of the sort. Other people have written really good articles of that nature about this album and you should read those too. (I linked the recent Stereogum article, just google the rest, they are out there.) I’m not that great with that stuff anyway and love a nice bit of gonzo journalism so that’s why I write the way I do. And besides, with albums that resonate so personally and have so many memories around them, it really is the only way I know how to approach them. I have a lot of thoughts on a few of the songs, more sparse thoughts on others. I just kind of let it come to me as I was listening.
You may feel entirely differently about these songs and that’s okay! That’s the beauty of the music we love, it is so damn personal to the listener. Here’s what I think and feel about these songs, tell me what you think in the comments.
The District Sleeps Alone Tonight. Listening to this song now, I can’t help but think back to those salad days of 2003 and first hearing it. I’m thinking back fondly to it as entry way for something different, the first cracking open of a door into an entirely new world.
Such Great Heights. You all know it. I don’t have to tell you about it. It has been everywhere in the last 20 years and it is honestly just such a timeless song, embedded so deeply in our culture and consciousness that it feels like it has always just been there.
But if you didn’t hear this song for the first time in 2003, it is hard to describe what that felt like; it really was something so far out of left field at the time, it felt like something brushing the edge of radical. What I didn’t know at the time was that it would go on to usher in a sea change in my own music tastes and flip them very much on their head. And even more than that, the overall impact it would have on popular music as a whole and that it would mark the start of relatively small, niche and regional indie rock bands evolving into “Big Indie.” I don’t think anyone realized that was what this was at the time. At all. The enduring classics never really feel that way in the moment though, like they are shifting culture, we just listen to them and something intangible takes hold. I’m a bit too young to know what hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” felt like at the end of 1991 (I was only 10 at that time and didn’t hear the song until probably sometime in 1992 or even 1993, my memory is a bit hazy) but I can imagine it was something like this. A seismic shift happening that you just knew but couldn’t quite describe.
In any case, it still sounds fresh and relevant today, like it could have been released last week; very few songs have that kind of staying power or impact (I feel similarly about “Hypnotize” by the Notorious B.I.G.). This song also has the best fadeout, and even having heard it thousands of times by now, I still hang on to every note, often leaning my head to the side in a physical gesture to try to grab every last drop of sound possible.
Sleeping In. Let me be the first to tell you that I absolutely LOVE sleeping in and am not now, nor have I ever been a morning person. This song could be my theme song with the (admittedly rather basic) lyrics, Don’t Wake Me I’m sleeping In. That is if I hadn’t had an irrational dislike of this song for a long time. I know this is stupid, oh believe me I know how stupid it is, but I took issue with this song when it first came out because in it, Ben Gibbard makes reference to Lee Harvey Oswald having killed John F. Kennedy, a common and often said thing. They even teach you that in history class (not that that is any measure of what is “accurate” or not). No biggie right?
Oh no, not to me at 22. I was obsessed with the JFK assassination for a long time and particularly so in this era. I read endlessly and watched everything I could on it and I firmly believed (as I still do now) it was the CIA and Lee Harvey Oswald was exactly what he said he was, a patsy. (I am not joking when I say that I got a copy of the Warren Commission report for my 23rd birthday, not even a little bit.) I was so rigid in this belief that I was offended someone would DARE to put such a claim in a song! What the hell BG?! Wow, that was ridiculous to even type that out! But it was true at the time. Now I’m like, can I just go back in time to say to myself “Jesus Christ kid, relax, it’s just a song and the phrasing fit the rhyme scheme, there’s plenty of better things to be angry at.” Ah the follies of (a very nerdy) youth! (I was also offended when Death Cab signed to a major label after Transatlanticism, but got over that in time too. It was the tiiiimes man, what can I say?)
Oh and just to clear it up, I’m not a big conspiracy theory person at all, I never really read up much on any of the other myriad ones floating around about any number of things, the JFK one is just so enduring and it fascinated me as a kid so I read a lot about it. I haven’t read much on it in the last 15 years or so and if someone said “Oswald did it” in a song now, I’d just shrug.
Nothing Better. These lyrics…………..I thought they were a bit off then and I have to say 20 years on, I still think they’re a bit cringey. But I guess I have to ask myself, is that a fair assessment given the fact that they seem to start out as typical sad white indie boy “woe is me a girl dumped me” fare before the counter point of Jenny Lewis kicks in to set said sad white indie boy straight? That is something that was not usual in songs of this type then, before then, or even after then aka now. I think of it like this…yes the lyrics are a bit cringe but songs like this, and countless others, are more a product of their time when “I’ll make you see you were wrong” low-key misogyny like this from men was the norm; not accepting no for an answer during a breakup has spawned tens of thousands of sad songs about that fact so this is hardly out of the realm of normal.
All that being said, this is by far not the worst example I could point to of men bitching about a woman leaving them and the point and counter point narrative is certainly refreshing and even funny. The music for this one isn’t my favorite but the boopy bassline in the chorus still hits.
Recycled Air. Many a late night was spent by me (and many others I’m sure) laying in bed staring at the ceiling contemplating my young life and “what does it meeeean” with the subtle pleasant lull of this song. Ah yes, more of those follies of youth.
Clark Gable. Sorry not sorry, this one was cheesy in 2003 and it’s still cheesy now. From the lyrics to the music, and the delivery that tries way too hard, this one falls flat and is pretty much filler. But in the sage words of Primus, they can’t all be zingers.
We Will Become Silhouettes. Give Up really plays out in three arcs and unfortunately falters in the middle of the album. This song is firmly in arc two (aka the “less strong” songs) and also borders right on the edge of cheesy, though doesn’t fully fall in like “Clark Gable” does; it has some redeemable moments. I have often wondered if this record would have been better as a six song EP with just the first two songs, “Recycled Air” and the last three songs, all of which have had the most impact overall for me. We’d have never known the difference if the other four weaker songs weren’t included (okay, okay, “Sleeping In” can be included as a bonus track) and probably were spared from the “limited edition vault clearing” of having them released a few years later and sold for a lot more money when it became apparent a second album was never going to happen. I guess we’ll never know.
This Place Is A Prison. I always liked the darker tone of the music on this one and the inclusion of live drums in particular which were played by Gibbard himself (he drummed on very early Death Cab releases too). I still feel this way about the social rat race. Unfortunately for 22 year old me, I can’t go back and tell her that a lot of other shit is going to get better, but this isn’t going to be one of them!
Brand New Colony. So much pining for so many girls over the years to this one, can’t even tell a lie! I’m sure Ben Gibbard knew he was inspiring lots of pining indie rock boys with this but did he think of the lesbians too?! Even if he didn’t, he gave me the best sappy goo to think about crushes endlessly to with the line I want to take you far from the cynics in this town /And kiss you on the mouth / We’ll cut our bodies free from the tethers of this scene / Start a brand new colony
It also sounds probably the most like Nintendo on the album so my old fling was correct in her assessment. (I never pined for her to this song for the record.)
Natural Anthem. This song closes the record and is a bit of a tough one for me, even today. The same year this was released, an old high school boyfriend, who I had remained friends with and who was supportive of me when I came out, died of an OD. I didn’t understand what was happening at the time because I never knew he had a problem, he kept that hidden from me. Then all of a sudden he was gone. I didn’t get to say goodbye; I took it very hard. (We were always friends, but in sporadic contact by then. It was the days before social media and I was a late adopter of cell phones. I didn’t find out until 10 years later that he had been to rehab more than once in an attempt to save his life and that’s probably why I didn’t hear from him.)
Then in 2004, another high school friend took his own life after dealing with similar substance problems. His wake was the eeriest experience of my life up until that point. Total silence, the grief of his family so massive and the situation so unfathomable, it was deafeningly loud, a vacuum of despair. Not long after that I was listening to this song for the first time and a profound wave of sadness hit me like a ton of bricks. (For some reason this song had not been included on the burned copy of the CD I was initially given so I didn’t hear it until I bought an official copy of the album later.)
The song has forever made me think of the boundaries between life and death, the unsettling feeling of that wake, and the guilt I felt not being able to save my ex in particular, replaying in my mind as the simulated strings and acidic synths paraded onward with the drum n bass style beat. In these sounds a picture formed in my mind, I could see my friends transcending one phase of existence for another, fading off into the ether. I mostly think of Ben Gibbard when I think of this album (I’m sure I’m hardly alone there), but it was Jimmy Tamborello who hit me the hardest of all with this one.
I don’t know what this song is even about, I’m sure it is about something specific, but I don’t even hear or process the words when Gibbard starts to sing, it is imbedded so deeply in me that this is a song about my friends dying and moving on to the next life. The long instrumental intro—that goes on for nearly four minutes—is what gets me every single time, even two decades later. I see my friends shifting from one plane to another, from life to death, forever those young guys, robbed of the middle age I’m now living—one goofy and an overly confident schemer, one reserved and taciturn—moving to enter eternity.
Give Up was released on 2/18/2003 via SubPop.