People may not give the Postal Service record enough credit for being self-aware. By the second verse of "Nothing Better," when we hear Ben Gibbard sing, "I feel I must interject here/You're getting carried away feeling sorry for yourself," it's hard not to retort: "Um, aren't you the guy who does Death Cab for Cutie?"
FINDING HIS VOICE With honest vocals but all new sound, Dustin Saucier.
The guy makes a living feeling sorry for himself.
If Gibbard can do it, why not Dustin Saucier? His I Wrote a Letter is filled with the same kinds of introspective odes to broken hearts and broken promises, hitting a crescendo with a line from "Wounded Bird" late in the album: "Now I know the world is mean/And there's nothing left for me."
Maybe that's a little bit over the top. Nothing can be quite so bad if it's accompanied by enough warm electric guitars, tasteful drumming, and a bit of mandolin. Scaling back from the heavy and aggressive rock espoused by his previous bands — Arms Against a Sea; Man, the Reformer; Black Firs — the serial frontman has here put together a much more organic sound for his solo debut, drawing on the likes of the Decemberists and the stringband revival to create a winsome, melancholy album that doesn't forget to be catchy and rock out every once in a while.
It's a course in catharsis. Should you want to open a vein along with him, there's a lot of fun to be had here. When the electric guitar enters "Thoughtful," it's like he got Wilco's Nels Cline to chime in, with a piercing and subtle solo that metes out notes like there's a shortage. "Sometimes it feels like you have to sell your soul to make it in this town," Saucier sings in his emotive tenor, and you surely don't have to be a musician to sympathize.
Nor, though, do you have to periodically worry you're "a soulless motherfucker who doesn't know his head from his ass," as Saucier does in "The Fire, the Trip, the End," to enjoy a rapid country shuffle, with two lines of mandolin dancing in and out of each other in each channel. The drums have a muted pop to them, sitting underneath the acoustic instruments and propping them up.
"Carousel Horse" is more restrained, with a thrumming bass underneath a particularly nice opening of acoustic guitar strum. Later, though, there's a manic lead that enters as though to mimic our protagonist's anxiety: "I'm holding out my heart/Just to watch it fall apart." A keyboard part is layered into the background like a glimmer of hope.
And if it were all sad-sack, it might get old before 45 minutes is up, but the scolding "You'll Ruin Yourself Like That" keeps thing feisty, with the album's single best vocal hook and a danceable bounce. "It hurts less to sing along," we're assured. There's a little bit of vaudeville to it, even, like Saucier has to play a part to get himself this puffed up for the mocking "la-da-da" chorus and the "talk, talk, talk" repeating phrases. The vocal echo he layers in for the bridge has all the confidence in the world, though, and this is a song you can listen to a number of times and still keep pulling out new favorite parts.