I want desperately to love Give Up, to rave about it, to worship it as the masterpiece it should be. But I can’t.
In 2001, Dntel released Life is Full of Possibilities, which contained the single “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan,” a collaborative effort by Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. The song was pure gold, an intoxicating mixture of poppy vocals and distinctly un-poppy IDM beats. By the time word got around that the two were collaborating on an LP, “Evan and Chan” had set the bar for Give Up higher than Cypress Hill in a hot air balloon on April 20th.
The beauty of “Evan and Chan” stemmed from the unlikely fusion of Gibbard’s warm, melodious vocals with Tamborello’s cold, distorted tracks — but that is precisely what this album lacks. On Give Up, Tamborello strips down and softens his sound to make it more accessible while Gibbard oversimplifies his melodies to fit Tamborello’s formerly enigmatic style. The result is an album that struggles to find a new voice when it already had a perfectly good one.
It starts off on the right path with “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” easily the highlight of the disc. Tamborello begins very slowly and simply, while Gibbard sadly croons, “You seem so out of context / In this gaudy apartment complex / A stranger with your door key / Explaining that I’m just visiting / And I am finally seeing / Why I was the one worth leaving.” Goosebumps? Check. One by one, Tamborello adds elements to the track, and by the end its dense layers pound away, complementing Gibbard’s lovely vocals. It’s not the beautiful mayhem we expected, but the result is a pleasant, almost danceable pop tune.
While “The District” works, it soon becomes apparent that clean and poppy is not their strong suit. The sugary “Sleeping In” mistakes repetition for a hook, and while “Clark Gable” and “We Will Become Silhouettes” aren’t offensive, they’re fairly nondescript — a malady that strikes most of the album. “Nothing Better,” a duet with folk artist Jen Wood, is a homage to the Human League’s hit “Don’t You Want Me,” but if someone paid a tribute to me with lines like “please call a surgeon who can crack my ribs and repair this broken heart” or “I will block the door like a goalie tending the net in the third quarter of a tied-game rivalry” I would return the favor by pouring sugar in their gas tank and setting their cat on fire.
I’m a big fan of the occasional musical twist, where halfway through the song we are suddenly taken in a completely unexpected direction. It’s a pleasant surprise on “This Place is a Prison,” as crashing drums interrupt the somber melody. But it could be even more effective had the two previous songs — as well as the following song — not employed the same technique. Taken individually, these songs aren’t terribly awful, but when four songs in a row are substantially altered after the halfway point, the strategy loses its effect.
Don’t always save the best for last — some people won’t make it that far.
Outside of the dissonant, delightful closer “Natural Anthem,” the cloudy, complex tracks that have become Tamborello’s trademark are generally abandoned for lighter, simpler numbers. Instead of the improbable magnificence of catchy vocals over Aphex Twin-type tracks, most tracks on Give Up try too hard to be accessible while some melodies simply don’t exist. The lows here are dreadfully low, and the sad part is that those are the only songs that leave a lasting impression.