15 Years Ago: The Postal Service’s Debut Single Pushes Them to ‘Such Great Heights’
It was the indie favorite of the year. It was the song woven into the fabric of Garden State. It was the tune that helped introduce the world to Iron & Wine, not to mention launch Shondaland. It was the standout track that aided in creating Sub Pop’s second platinum album, ever. It was an advertising theme for UPS and M&Ms and Target. But, first, “Such Great Heights” was the single that announced the Postal Service.
The song was one of many built by the collaboration between Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello (best known for the electronic music he created under the name Dntel). After Gibbard contributed vocals to a song on Dntel’s 2001 album Life Is Full of Possibilities, Tamborello suggested that the two try working on a side project together.
“The music has always been the more difficult thing for me to write,” Gibbard told Entertainment Weekly in 2013, “so the idea of somebody basically turning in what were mostly finished beds of music and then I could sprinkle other things on top of it and write melodies and lyrics was really appealing to me.”
Because Tamborello lived in Los Angeles and Gibbard was based in Seattle, the two shared their musical creations from afar. The former would create electronic beats, bloops and melodies, then mail the recordings to the latter, who would sing and sometimes add guitars, extra keyboards and drums, before mailing his contributions back. Because this musical alliance took place via mail, Tamborello and Gibbard named their side project the Postal Service. Tamborello had a connection with Sub Pop via college classmate Tony Kiewel and this side project found a home at the legendary indie label.
“It took about a year,” Tamborello remembered. “We did it really casually and slowly.”
Over the course of 2002, the duo built the hybrid of indie rock and electronica that became the Postal Service’s first (and to date, only) album, but one of their first creations would gain the most attention. At once mellow and hyperactive, the tune that would become “Such Great Heights” bubbled with a zippy New Wave energy that inspired Gibbard in a way he had rarely been jolted before.
“I certainly have written things that I felt were beamed down to me from somewhere else. And they’re some of the best songs, I think, that I’ve written,” he said in 2013. “‘Such Great Heights’ [was a song] that I wrote incredibly quickly. … It did feel that there was some sort of spiritual transcendence happening and the song being beamed down to me.”
Gibbard wrote about lovers as perfect puzzle pieces with the quirky characteristics of aligned eyeballs and the yearning that seems universal to anyone in a relationship. He recorded his contributions at Death Cab bandmate Chris Walla’s Hall of Justice recording studio in Seattle. He laid down not only a gentle and sweet vocal about love, but also added guitar (most obvious in the mid-song break). Although Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis would sing backup on much of Give Up, indie singer Jen Wood performed those duties on “Such Great Heights” (she also sang more prominently on “Nothing Better”).
Once Give Up was mixed and completed towards the end of 2002, it was decided that “Such Great Heights” would be the Postal Service’s big reveal, planned for release on Jan. 21, 2003 – about a month before the album was available. Instead of doing the usual A-side/B-side thing, the duo wanted to put out something more substantial, including a non-album track and two cover songs – not the Postal Service covering other artists, mind you, but other bands covering brand-new Postal Service tunes. And so, Sub Pop labelmates the Shins and Iron & Wine agreed, with acoustic takes, respectively, on “We Will Become Silhouettes” and “Such Great Heights.”
“I just did it as a favor,” Sam Beam, a.k.a. Iron & Wine, told Seeds Entertainment. “Then [Gibbard] was, of course, putting out his new record and he wanted to do a single or some B-sides. Instead of B-sides, he decided he wanted other people to cover his songs. So I met with him, it seemed nice, and the song was good. When we put it out, it just came the way it came. I never expected it.”
Iron & Wine, which had only put out its debut album that fall, would assist in making the popularity of “Such Greats Heights” a two-front campaign – although that would happen a little later. Meanwhile, Give Up came out in February 2003, earning glowing reviews from both mainstream and indie rock critics and respectable sales (charting at No. 114 on Billboard). But as Gibbard and Tamborello hit the road for a short Postal Service tour, they noticed that their project was gradually gaining in exposure.
“You could really see physical proof of the album getting popular as we went across the country,” Tamborello said in 2013. “By the end a lot of the shows were being moved to bigger venues, which was exciting.”
A groundswell was building around Give Up and the catchy, percussive “Such Great Heights” was at the top of it. Although the single didn’t land on the charts, it did make a splash with its video (a micro/macro view of lab workers) and via radio.
“The big turning point was when KROQ in Los Angeles started playing ‘Such Great Heights,'” Tamborello remembered. The song started bubbling up everywhere – on radio, in clubs and in live sets by other acts (including Ben Folds and Rilo Kiley). Then came the trailer for Zach Braff’s 2004 indie romantic comedy Garden State.
“Garden State was big,” recalls Sub Pop’s Kiewel. “They weren’t in the movie, but they were in the trailer, and then the Iron & Wine cover was on the soundtrack. That version was also in the M&Ms commercial, which had an even higher profile. A lot of people still think Postal Service covered an Iron & Wine song.”
In a rare event, a song and its cover version became popular simultaneously – not because they sounded so similar, but because they sounded so different. In making “Such Great Heights” into an Iron & Wine song, Beam turned the nervy energy of the original into a sleepy, acoustic daydream, whisper singing Gibbard’s lyrics (melodies intact) as if in a daze.
“I’m definitely interested in interpreting a song; finding something that wasn’t in the recording that I was familiar with and using a song as a script instead of something written in stone,” Beam said in 2016. “Lyrics and chord changes have a lot of room to be manipulated. It’s fun to squeeze some other sentiment from a set of lyrics that might not have been emphasized in another version. I treat it like a draft of a play rather than some sort of tradition that has to be repeated over and over again.”
Both versions became heavily visible through licensing, not just with Garden State and the M&Ms ad, but in commercials for Target, Ask.com and Kaiser Permanente. The Postal Service’s rendition was used in a 2004 episode of Veronica Mars and became the initial theme/promo song for nighttime soap Grey’s Anatomy (also appearing on the show’s first soundtrack collection). There was a minor controversy when Apple employed the “Such Great Heights” video directors to essentially recreate the visuals for an iMac campaign and not just a little irony when UPS used the song (by a band named the Postal Service) to soundtrack a high-profile series of ads.
Nine years later, the continuing popularity of “Such Great Heights” helped Give Up reach platinum status in the U.S., becoming only the second-ever Sub Pop album to achieve that designation (Nirvana’s Bleach being the first). In fact, the slow-and-steady success of “Such Great Heights,” the Postal Service and Give Up provided Gibbar, Tamborello and Lewis to do a major 10th anniversary tour in 2013, accompanied by a deluxe reissue that included – among other goodies – Iron & Wine’s beloved version of “Such Great Heights” on the bonus disc.
In the year since the Postal Service’s big debut, the duo’s most famous song has been celebrated as one of the most enduring musical treasures from the ’00s. It’s been embraced by movies and brands, TV shows and fans – of indie rock, of mainstream pop, of electronic music, of effervescent love songs.
“I think ‘Such Great Heights’ is the first time I’ve ever written a positive love song,” Gibbard told Rolling Stone, “where it’s a song about being in love and how it’s rad, rather than having your heart broken.”