Cover vs. Original
I’ll admit my biases – I’ve always had a mixed opinion of Ben Gibbard’s work, both his Postal Service collaboration with electronic-minded producer Jimmy Tamborello of Dntel as well as his main band Death Cab For Cutie. I’ll freely acknowledge he’s talented at a uniquely spare form of lyricism, but there’s a thin line between spare and hollow, and it often sounds like he’s channeling New Order and The
Cure, then mixing in a bit of early Seventies pop in annoyingly similar, rather one dimensional compositions that add variety simply by altering dynamics, rather than through the nuts and bolts of songwriting. I’ll risk the stone-throwers by going further – he’s up there with the most overrated indie lyricists, one whose magic wears off at age 22 for most people.
That said, if I had my choice I’d probably opt for the Postal Service partnership which, despite the unsubtle, in-your-face position of Tamborello’s toys in the mix, seemed to have the positive effect of toning down the collegiate self-absorption, with the admission that “Such Great Heights” was one of GIbbard’s first attempts at a positive love song.
Thus, we have unusual (for him) lines like “I am thinking it's a sign that the freckles in our eyes are mirror images, and when we kiss they're perfectly aligned” held somewhat hostage within cheapo peppy retro percussion that recalls, not admirably, “Maniac” from Flashdance. Above all, it’s the meter of the lyric, not exactly revelatory on the printed page, but quite arresting when perfectly nestled within the eurobeat backing. Things improve handsomely at the chorus when thicker synthesizers swash forward, partially masking the precious fake hit-hats and hand claps, with the final verses driven by an Ultravox-inspired inner propulsion, this time more tastefully embellished by Tamborello.
In the end, a very worthwhile tune, but hardly worth its high rank in the top 30 of Rolling Stone’s “tracks of the decade.” In fact, I’d argue the jaunty approach, brisk speed and casual delivery indicates this was viewed, even by its creators, as a bit of a trifle. While that may be an overstatement, it would take a furry faced folkie from Florida to make the Postal boys realize the treasure they’d wrought.
Sam Beam, aka Iron & Wine, recorded his “Such Great Heights” cover shortly after his first album was released in 2002, The Creek Drank the Cradle (his version appearing as a b-side to the Postal Service single and on the Garden State film soundtrack), and this former Miami professor of film studies employed the simplest of means – hushed lead and background vocals framed by an often reticent, plucked acoustic guitar that opens the track with a nearly suffocating degree of poignancy.
While some may say the quantum leap in feeling is a natural artifact of the reduced speed vs. the original, a close listen reveals Beam subtly alters the somewhat square, singsong melody, slyly ornamenting the second half of each verse (e.g., starting with “…in our eyes are mirror images”, then repeated at “himself did make”) to boost the musicality ten-fold from Postal’s near monotone approach, all the while alternating between high guitar grace notes and a rounded, closely-miked bass string.
Admittedly, Gibbard is far more expressive in the chorus, equaling Beam, but has no chance of imbuing “missing you to death” with the staggering impact Iron & Wine achieves given the surrounding cacophony and his more pedestrian vocal gifts. No, I’m not trying to be cruel, but I honestly can’t think of another cover performance that so improves on its original in overall impact. Such great heights, indeed.