Benjamin Gibbard, ‘Former Lives’ – Album Review
It's been a crazy 21st century for Benjamin Gibbard, whose soft-spoken voice has permeated the era, and whose Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service projects have left an indelible mark on listeners' lives. Along the way, he married indie princess Zooey Deschanel, though the two have since split up. Through all of this, he flipped between his native Seattle and adopted home of Los Angeles, all the while writing and recording disarming little solo songs. From these comes 'Former Lives,' his first album under his own name, and a more fitting title would be hard to find.
It comes as a surprise that a musician so much the subject of music media coverage would have squirreled away so much solo work. It's doubly surprising that these essentialist and mostly analog 'Lives' tracks contrast so much with the synthy explorations of his main projects.
But there are surprises here, too, such as a cappella opener 'Shepard's Bush Lullaby,' recorded on his iPhone while he was walking around London. (That's a major testimonial for the Fourtrack app.) In a recent interview, Gibbard described the album as "Big Star-y and rootsy," referencing one of indie-pop's most beloved and influential bands. That influence comes through on 'Dream Song,' a half-tempo ode to insomnia, and on the power-pop of 'Teardrop Windows,' the most ear-pleasing socialist history of Seattle heard in some time. Singer-songwriter Aimee Man guests on 'Bigger Than Love,' a history of domestic challenges that invites comparison to the Deschanel break-up.
The mood relaxes with the sing-song, tall-tale melancholia of 'Lily,' which finds Gibbard describing the "five-alarm fire raging inside my heart" and listening as "a big brass band / fills the air with song." The proper word for such a song is "ditty." The mariachi band Trio Ellas -- who've worked with Lady Gaga -- provide a flourish of horns to the Southwestern 'Something's Rattling (Cowpoke),' which has a bittersweet, Paul Simon-esque yearning for solitude: "I'm disappearing into that grid / where I'll live out in the open perfectly hid." There's something of Sir Paul McCartney vibe to the chorus of 'Duncan, Where Have You Gone?' with its tuneful and mournful chorus of "your biggest dream is just to be a stranger you see on the street."
Power-pop essentialism returns on lead single 'Oh Woe,' perhaps the track that sounds most like Death Cab. By the last third of the album, you get the feeling that Gibbard's reframing the same themes repeatedly, and while the tracks are pleasing, they're not overly inventive. 'Hard One to Know' and 'Lady Adelaide' buzz along buoyantly, while 'Broken Yolk In the Western Sky' jangles with country-fried heartbreak. The somber 'Building a Fire' ends the album with tearful hope, the last line, "all right, you're alive," serving as a mantra, spoken by an artist who has created -- and suffered -- many beautiful things.