Reviewing from Such Great Heights

By A. J. UrquidiOctober 18, 2023

Reviewing from Such Great Heights
THE POSTAL SERVICE & DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE: Give Up & Transatlanticism 20th Anniversary Tour with BUILT TO SPILL, Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, October 15, 2023.

If you were a teenager with uncomfortable, contradictory “feelings” in 2003, you would’ve sought out epic records to alchemize your moods into mix CDs and thus woo your crush by cringily demonstrating your “sensitive side.” Your vulnerable tunes likely derived from Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism or the Postal Service’s Give Up: both albums further mainstreamed indie rock that year, soundtracking burgeoning romances and self-pitying breakups; both bands featured emotionally disemboweling lyrics by Seattle’s Muppet-faced emperor of ice-veins, Ben Gibbard. He recently acknowledged the lightning-in-a-bottle creativity that birthed two legendary projects in a short span alongside DCFC’s influential The O.C. cameos handing them arena-rock stardom. Evidently, Gibbard’s vigor replenishes when he drinks the adrenochromic tears of elder-millennials—he’s now brought his bands together for a joint tour covering the albums in their entirety, including three nights at the Hollywood Bowl. Wait, isn’t this the guy who disparages L.A. on every album? Lucky for him, we all kinda hate Los Angeles too.

Unfortunately, Sunday’s Park & Ride failed to shuttle hundreds of fans quickly enough to witness what had been a fitting opening act. Boise’s Built to Spill emerged from the same 1990s PNW scene as DCFC, their songs’ witticisms punctuated by sublime minutes-long guitar-fuzz adventures. I did catch BtS’s flawless closing performance of “Carry the Zero.” Whittled to three members after utilizing a phalanx of guitar-strapped lumberjacks just 10 years ago at my first Spill show, the new iteration impressively fleshed out the masterpiece as forcefully as its studio version.

Afterward, Death Cab commandeered the stage with Transatlanticism’s opener, “The New Year.” Nick Harmer’s nervous-pacing bassline traversed pauses where we held our breath waiting for each crash to follow, like fireworks igniting Gibbard’s mind when he sang, “I wish the world was flat like the old days / Then I could travel just by folding a map.” These lines foreshadowed Transatlanticism’s themes of pining for a distant lover, and all the aching, flailing, and self-negating that help someone navigate separation—sometimes toxically. Case in point, the vicious red-lit performance of fuckboy anthem “Tiny Vessels”—apparently a crowd favorite, its first notes receiving a mini-ovation.

The 2014 resignation of DCFC’s other guitarist-songwriter tainted anniversary show talks, but the beauty of Sunday’s performance nevertheless highlighted the strength of Chris Walla’s co-writing. Two-decade-old sing-along “The Sound of Settling” proved unsettling in context here: Gibbard’s receding hairline at 47 clashed with his chipper delivery of “Our youth is fleeting […] I can’t wait to go gray,” as he held a mirror to my own mortality/hairline. Few in area G2 seemed worried, but I definitely spotted the Grim Reaper doomscrolling by the pretzel cart.

Eventually, the perfect emotional-shipwreck diptych materialized, the forever-building title track making way for the reflective comedown memory of “Passenger Seat.” The former is a stunning centerpiece in recorded form, but it was otherworldly to be present while Gibbard groveled “I need you so much closer” a dozen times over drummer Jason McGerr’s insistent eight-minute pounding; the audience responded with a cascading “So come ooooooon, come ooooooon” before the Atlantic washed us away. Hard as he tries to fold the map, Gibbard can’t convince his lover to return from overseas; boy, is this yearning palpable. My neighbor muttered wistfully that the song was in her Myspace about-me section.

Cutie concluded the iconic album, and Gibbard promised to return in 15 to tackle another iconic album. Swapping out Steve Jobs cosplay for pure white golfer-chic, he reemerged with Jenny Lewis, Jimmy Tamborello, and DCFC multi-instrumentalist Dave Depper to breathe life back into Give Up. On paper, Postal Service could be described as Death Cab vocals merely narrating Dntel’s bleep-bloop electronica; however, their sole studio album transcends the sum of those parts. The songs sound as idiosyncratic live as they do on iPods. Along the way, the band brought out original duet-partner Jen Wood to reprise her feistiness on “Nothing Better”; Gibbard drummed on apocalypse theme “We Will Become Silhouettes,” among other tracks; and McGerr resurfaced to hijack Gibbard’s seat for the unprogrammed beats of the album’s closers. Lighting and uniforms lent the ensemble a cute Kraftwerkiness, like marshmallow cyberpunk, or Jigglypuffs starting an Aphex Twin tribute band.

The encore is where things turned regrettable. First, Gibbard and Lewis offered an acoustic “Such Great Heights,” the overplayed-but-beloved radio smash the full band had already performed 40 minutes earlier. They then invited both Gibbard bands onstage to cover Depeche Mode’s overplayed-but-beloved radio smash “Enjoy the Silence,” very faithfully, for reasons unknown. A rehashed earlier song, followed by another band’s song that KROQ plays nine times a day, made for a finale my companions described as “deflated.” Certainly, the preceding Gibbard-a-thon had been majestic; it was just the encore experiment that was very unnecessary and could only do harm.


Photo of Ben Gibbard and Jenny Lewis onstage provided by contributor.

LARB Short Take live event reviews are published in partnership with the nonprofit Online Journalism Project and the Independent Review Crew.

LARB Contributor

A. J. Urquidi is the copydesk chief of Los Angeles Review of Books and co–executive editor of indicia.


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