"The Postal Service has existed for 10 years but this band has only been together for three months," Ben Gibbard explained (some might say, equivocated) from the stage in Toronto's sparsely filled Air Canada Centre hockey arena. But that wasn't why something felt off with the show.
Gibbard spent a decade denying this would ever happen, including to me personally during a 2011 interview when he said, perhaps frustrated with my unoriginal line of inquiry, "Yeah, it just kind of took on a life of its own. It became something far more than it was ever meant to be." But this year the Death Cab frontman and his one-time electronic collaborator Jimmy "Dntel" Tamberello decided to finally acquiesce to the pressure and bring the Postal Service back to "celebrate," in Gibbard's onstage words, the 10th anniversary of their only album, Give Up.
In the years since it's low-key release, Give Up had become a legendary album, steadily selling until it became Sub Pop's second-biggest ever, trailing only Nirvana's Bleach, not to mention becoming increasingly hip as its electronic pop sound came back into vogue
When I asked Gibbard back in 2011 if he was surprised that people were still asking about Postal Service, he said then, "Well, people are still asking because we haven't done anything. As long as we don't do anything, people are going to ask till the end of time."
"Look, it was done as a side project," he added. "It was meant to be something fun on the side. I don't want to say that there's never going to be another record, but I don't think people should be holding their breath. Then again, there might be one. I don't know. It's not a band. When a band breaks up you can say there's no more music. But we're not a band. When we find the time, the impetus and the inspiration to work on it again, maybe we will. But it's also possible that we'll never make another record."
Well, they still haven't made another record but they did finally become a band, and perhaps just as he feared, there was something a little bit lost between then and now.
The live show felt like going on a date with a high-school girlfriend after not seeing her outside of old photographs for 10 years. She might still be gorgeous, and you might still have a crush, but your feelings are fuelled by nostalgia.
The music was as brilliant as ever, from the opening swoon of "The District Sleep Tonight" to the epic melancholia of "We Will Become Silhouettes" to the anthemic (if slightly rushed) show-stopper "Such Great Heights," which remains one of the greatest songs ever made and the pounding heartbeat of the Postal Service's cult following.
And heart is why fans have never given up. We have a personal relationship with the music, and the lack of any disappointing follow-up only strengthened that love over the ensuing years. The songs are romantic above all else, with Gibbard's emotion-tinged vocals floating above Tamberello's pulsing beatscapes.
And maybe that emotional connection would have been re-established in a room more intimate or a field more epic than the empty airiness of a hockey arena. The venue was a terrible choice for the band ("this place is a little big, right?" Gibbard joked early on) which robbed the show of the intimacy it demanded.
The band itself, however, was pretty good. The beats were beefed up nicely, giving the headphone record the required heft for a live show, while Gibbard tended to jump between guitar, which he held like a security blanket, and the drums, which he jumped onto whenever an instrumental section lasted longer than his awkward dancing could handle. Indie queen Jenny Lewis, of Rilo Kiley and Watson Twins fame, sang on the album and became even more important onstage, adding her considerable charisma to Gibbard's as well as playing guitar and drum pads.
But back to "Such Great Heights," as we must.
"This song goes out to you," Gibbard said to the suddenly on its feet crowd once the first notes rang out. "It's a love song." Indeed, but perhaps it might have been better to remain unrequited since those great heights of 10 years ago proved, at least on this night, unreachable.