131. Song No. 1,876: “Clark Gable,” The Postal Service
Give Up, 2003
There are parts of my past that’ll make some fairly solid stories once I have the metaphorical balls to do them justice, even though they probably deserved more than being forever relegated to a place of cautionary tales with finite ends and unfortunate wisdom starring people I once couldn’t imagine life without and now haven’t either seen or spoken to in some way for years in the first place. Is that just how life lessons go? Or do I routinely make things harder and more painful than they have to be because I’m an historical mess?
I say this because this song makes me suspect I am clearly being punished for not yet wanting to dissect all the ways Clarity is still kind of like low-key emotional warfare because, oooooooof, let’s talk about how both “Clark Gable” and The Postal Service’s only but far-reaching full-length album sound like weekends at my high school sweetheart’s dorm room and moody evenings alone in mine, with its influence and stalwart, dependable-go-to presence weaving its way through two fairly significant yers. I mean, obviously let’s not actually do that because I’m tired of beating myself up over things that happened almost half a lifetime ago and the probably generously romanticized memories that accompany them. But that’s the first place this album takes me, despite all the ways its reasserted itself through the intervening years since.
Death Cab for Cutie was my favorite band through the second half of high school; by the time their popularity started to skyrocket beyond tiny, intimate venues, College Me had had enough experience “losing” my bands to the masses’ dilution that it didn’t really bother me how everyone else thought they loved this band as ardently as I had: I had, after all, long been rocking one of those pre-fame pink bunny DCFC shirts (that link is to some LiveJournal post from 2008 already declaring that “these shirts are rare and almost all are out of print,” just in case I’m not flexing my I-loved-them-when authority obnoxiously enough) and pestered the exceedingly patient staff of some indie record store in Bar Harbor, Maine, to order a copy of Something About Airplanes to get me through another interminable family vacation to the whitest places on earth and also introduced an unsuspecting high-school poetry class to the paradoxically overt sexual undercurrents in “Company Calls” and its epilogue in a songs-as-poetry lesson, and how many of these new “fans” could make those kinds of claims?
As Death Cab’s star rose, Benjamin Gibbard’s side projects enjoyed their own boost by association. The lone album from ¡All-Time Quarterback!, essentially the ur-DCFC but as an acoustic solo act, got a rerelease while the much newer and collaborative Postal Service took off in its own right.
Postal Service was all the introspection, thoughtful lyrics and sweetly inviting vocals that made Death Cab so good, but swapping out guitars for a more electronic sound offered up something DCFC-adjacent without being derivative. What’s more, while Death Cab always felt like they were mine, Postal Service always felt like it was something I shared with everyone — a feeling I was actually starting to get comfortable with, thanks partly to realizing that my bands getting famous came with the novelty of hearing their songs in the wild.
Which brings us back to really my only previous relationship I recall with any consistent fondness, despite all the ways I ensured it ended badly. My high school sweetheart was why I always kind of assumed I’d be happiest with someone who shared my musical taste, and The Postal Service was one of those bands that felt like ours, too, especially in contrast to the Death Cab songs that always felt more like my territory.
In retrospect, perhaps an album dominated by relationship post-mortems maybe isn’t the most auspicious common ground, but I maintain context eclipses content: As just one completely unrelated example, years and years later, hubs and I had our first dance to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” a song that boasts a personal relevance to us negating its breakup-song lyrics, optics be damned. And, besides, one of the concessions to a mutually shared taste in music built on a foundation of second- and third-wave emo standards is that, like, 97 percent of it those songs are gonna be about heartbreak and beggars can’t be choosers who get all caught up in things like the actual words to a song.
All of that notwithstanding, I am excellent at hyper-focusing on the parts of anything (… or, uh, I suppose anyone) that appeal to me or apply to me and just kind of downplaying or recontextualizing the rest. Which is pretty easy to do with an album like Give Up — constructed predominantly on the idea of altering one’s perception for an optimal, if not deliberately artificial, vantage point washing everything in a idealized image that’s perfectly lovely but thoroughly manipulated and ultimately inauthentic — and especially a song like “Clark Gable,” which is interspersed with images of obsessively recreating a love that’s played against the completely, relatably and all-too-human motivations behind that hollow orchestration in a chorus betraying the narrator’s self-awareness so vulnerably and honestly that it’s pretty hard to get mad about it:
I want so badly to believe
That there is truth, that love is real
And I want life in every word
To the extent that it’s absurd
Never mind the stand-ins and the preoccupied tinkering to recreate a shamelessly stylized version of one’s personal history and the revisionist gallantry retroactively included among a last-ditch apologia and attempt to fix whatever went wrong the first time in the desperate hopes for a better ending through maybe sparking those old memories in better conditions. It’s a bitch to reconcile the things we think we want with the reality of what happened and how things in life tend to go their own way without a gentle nudge from whatever storyteller is instead letting the bigger picture just proceed unheeded in an effort to make peace with a deeply unsatisfying end that only makes sense years later and with the wide-focus of a broader perspective to show you that maybe what you thought was the main story was destined to be nothing more than a supporting, though lovingly rendered, detail in something much bigger that maybe might become a recurring motif if the conditions are right.