I was 14 when I first heard The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” It was 2009 and I had just started high school, and I found it late one night while browsing YouTube. It was one of the first songs I uploaded onto my first iPod touch which I got for my birthday that year and lugged around everywhere with me but most faithfully on the bus to and from school, finding refuge from the daily perils of teendom via my headphones. The song’s bouncy and bright beats were a new thing to my radio-trained ears: soothing and refined and clean with a sheen of nostalgia. A few clicks over on my iPod there was another song I was liking at the moment, Death Cab for Cutie’s “Transatlanticism.” I had no real problems in my life at the time but these songs let me pretend that I did. I’d listen and think about the days when heartbreak and long distance would come for me, and let the pang of the words he was singing hit even harder.
It was an embarrassingly long time before I learned the bands were fronted by the same guy (I’m talking years, years, years, later): a brain-melting revelation to me that came with implications that only seemed to pull into sharp focus Tuesday night, Sept. 19, at Ben Gibbard’s dual Death Cab for Cutie/The Postal Service show at Madison Square Garden marking the 20th anniversary of Transatlanticism and Give Up, two seminal indie records that were released during different seasons of the same year, 2003.
I and tens of thousands of other around-30-year-old millennials shuffled into the arena to witness what felt like a once-in-a-lifetime show that would merge two separate pasts and legacies. Maybe you were here for just one over the other, but tonight we were reliving both together.
At 9 p.m. on the dot the lights dimmed and Gibbons and his Death Cab band ran out dressed like it was still 2009: in black button downs only beaten in tightness by their pants (which were also black and very skinny). The crowd (still largely sitting) politely swayed and bopped through the first few songs of the album before coming to life for “The Sound Of Settling.” Loud whoops followed for the first big anthem of the night, “Transatlanticism,” which warranted Gibbard ditching his guitar and the illumination of single blue spotlight.
It felt miraculous that the music sounded like a straight rip from my iPod, the steady climb of guitar and drums on “Transatlanticism” reaching the same sublime, deafening levels live. I had joked beforehand that these songs would make me cry. But in real time the emotional impact of the songs had blunted. They were more like artifacts, something to gaze at from a distance; Gibbard’s voice, which has understandably aged, gathering wrinkles over the years, only heightened that sensation.
That only continued into The Postal Service’s set, which brought Gibbard, in a new band formation with Jenny Lewis, Dntel, and a few overlapping Death Cab members, back on stage after a 15 minute intermission. Now dressed in all white, with Lewis in an elegant caped Rodarte gown that billowed in the artificial wind, they bounded into “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” in front of a much more enthusiastic crowd. In the history of The Postal Service they’d only played these songs live a handful of times, and this tour was the first since 2013. In turn, these songs felt even more precious.
It’s a strange thing being at an event that’s fueled solely by the culture of nostalgia. Much of the night for me was spent oscillating between past and the present, particularly during “Such Great Heights” which brought the biggest rise of the night; phones went up; a woman not much older than me a few seats down could only hold her hand over her mouth. Gibbard knew what was required of him and delivered the indie frontman knee-knocking dance. Every word was sung back religiously.
I flash-backed to the bus rides; after the show, my friend recounted his vivid memories of listening to Give Up outside his high school, his head laying on his backpack, eyes closed. I imagined everyone else getting transported to some moment long ago when “Such Great Heights” imprinted itself on their life (is there a German word for that?).
There was also the sense of witnessing two separate Gibbards finally merging into one: the men who unknowingly made the formative songs of my youth in two different outfits, was really just one master at wringing out emotion from any sort of sound, whether guitar or electronic.
For a tour built around the past, there was little reminiscing on Gibbard’s part. He spoke little, and the most he said about the songs were packaged as small quips. (“All these songs are true stories except for this one,” he said before Death Cab’s “Death of an Interior Decorator.”) The closest he ever got to something more emotional was towards the end of the Postal Service set, when he remarked in awe at playing MSG. “This is a tiny, tiny record we made 20 years ago, for what we thought would be for 5,000 people,” he said. But that felt enough. Everyone seemed to know that the evening was more for us — most of all Gibbard.
“A lot of our music has marked time in people’s lives. It’s not because we’re so amazing, it’s because we make music,” he told the New York Times recently. “And music marks time.”