If a large part of the joy of live music is in the anticipation, The Postal Service are already right up there with the best. A ten-year wait will get anyone restless: for the 5,000 people pressed into Brixton Academy an hour before showtime these last minutes are unbearable, the expectation palpable as attendees jostle for position far in advance of the norm for this venue. With ten minutes to go the room can barely breathe, flesh packed tight and sightlines at a premium: one girl, her Death Cab hoodie faded and her tour t-shirt tied around her waist, almost buckles with tears when a taller guy obscures her view.
And then the lights fall and the intro music starts and all movement stops, the air stilling as though preparing for a storm. As the opening notes of The District Sleeps Alone Tonight play out it breaks, the cheers and screams vying with the PA for volume and I’m thinking, suddenly, about the earplugs that I left at home, about how great this song is and how fresh it sounds despite its age and how Ben Gibbard seems to be ageing backwards like an indie Benjamin Button. Last time he trod this stage was with Death Cab two years ago, touring the mediocre Codes and Keys and giving a performance that felt, at best, as though he was going through the motions: here Gibbard seems upbeat and invigoured, his limbs semi-coordinated as he dances around the stage like Pixar’s Woody, a mere blur on the screens of the cameraphones held ceaselessly aloft.
It’s a slightly odd fit, the dancing and the screaming and the volume and the reverence, for music that still seems so intimate, so personal and so small. Like Gibbard’s other band the lyrics here don’t quite sit with mass consumption, the tales too introspective, too sad to be coming from the mouths of so many thousands, many with arms aloft and eyes closed as though stood in worship. Others move their bodies as best they can, responding to the rising beats more than the vocals, to the glitch and the rhythms and the gathering swell.
Then there’s a third group, forming in whispers around the room and rapidly multiplying in number, their faces quizzical and turning to concern. They’re the ones who’ve noticed the shoddy sound mix, the overbearing bass levels and the soggy rendering of everything else, as though this is a set we’re hearing through a neighbour’s wall. We’re wondering whether it’s just this side, a consequence of the columns soaking up the higher layers, but a guy nearby says it’s the whole room – that he’s pushed his way through the entire crowd and it’s much the same throughout.
And god that’s a shame, with a setlist this strong. With just one album they’ve not got much room to manoeuver, granted, but beyond those ten tracks – they play all of them – a collection of covers, B-Sides and new songs fill out their stagetime to 80-odd minutes, with the recently-released Turn Around getting as rapturous a reception as anything else. Highpoints are everywhere, from whenever Gibbard takes the drums to his narrative sparring with keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Jenny Lewis in Nothing Better, to the blood-red lighting on a sombre This Place Is A Prison. The stage itself is pretty effective too, a stock exchange of rising bars and shifting squares, minimalist but striking.
But it’s all tempered by that mix, any subtlety lost in a level of bass that, at points, actually makes my teeth hurt. It’s only near the end that the issues seem resolved, main-set closer National Anthem foregrounding Jimmy Tamborello’s beats as it builds to its maelstrom of noise, the screens behind warped and frantic as Gibbard stands back to the crowd and staring into the flickering darkness.
The encore’s the strongest section, a cover of Dntel’s (This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan that might as well be a Postal Service song anyway and the chiptune retro of Brand New Colony, the background a fittingly Web 1.0 rendering of a broken Snake. But even here it’s a performance curiously low in feeling, and it’s only really in the final moments, as the closing mantra “Everything will change” is sung out by Gibbard and returned by the audience, that it seems more than a wall of sound, a final hint of the warmth and nostalgia that we’d waited so long for coming through as the speakers drain and the lights dim and the waiting begins anew.