Ben Gibbard, 'Former Lives'
If you were counting down the days to the release of Benjamin Gibbard’s solo album, anticipating 50+ minutes of cathartic heartbreak set to music, like I was, you’ll be surprised by how Former Lives actually sounds. The Death Cab for Cutie front-man put together 12 strangely happy and oddly-paired tunes for 37 minutes of crooning vocals and typical Gibbard songwriting. When news of the album’s release came eight months after the news of Gibbard’s divorce from indie film darling Zooey Deschanel after two years of marriage, I began envisioning a return to the desperately sad tracks that drew me to Death Cab in the first place (think Transatlanticism’s lyric, “I need you so much closer” or the infamous “I’ll follow you into the dark”) only billed under Ben’s name.
As it turns out, most of the songs from Former Lives were written before the couple met or while they were together. They’re not leftover songs, per se, but rather tunes that Gibbard had written while working on other Death Cab albums that just didn’t quite fit the band. After a few listens through the album, this becomes apparent. Trying to imagine the full band playing any of these songs on stage or touring with this album is a stretch—especially “Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke)” with the all-female mariachi band Trio Ellas as back up. “Teardrop Windows” sounds like it could be the most viable full band tune, but even that is pushing it.
When you listen through the album, you realize it’s less of an album and more a collection of songs that share the same recording and disc space. Each song comes from a different time in Gibbard’s life, each one has a life and story of its own. It’s a little like a wedding when people from all different areas of your life come together to celebrate—it’s a little awkward, but still joyful and they’re still all your friends, even if they might not become best friends with each other afterwards. I feel like a couple of these tunes have now become good friends of mine and a few of them, well, it was nice to meet them.
The album starts out very gutsy with a short lullaby in two-part acapella with Gibbard singing both parts and a percussive line as well. It’s tender and syrupy sweet and oh-so-good. “Dream Song” follows with a classic indie-pop feel, reminiscent of Guster. A few of the other tracks on the album have a similar poppiness to them. “Bigger Than Love” features the rich vocals of Aimee Mann and an impressively happy groove and lyric. There is nothing spectacular about the song except how lovable it is, which itself is pretty spectacular for a Death Cab associate. The adorableness continues with “Lily”—a tune as tender as can be and of the same stuff as another Ben’s (Folds) tune “The Luckiest.” “A Hard One to Know” has a nice driving drum and standard song structure to it. It also seems like a track that would have gone well with Plans or Transatlanticism, possibly the most emotionally accessible indie-tune as Gibbard laments a complicated relationship where “you tell me to stay and then you tell me to go.” The final track is minimalist in sound as it’s just Gibbard and his guitar with an optimistic charge of “Arise, you’re alive.”
A few tunes on the album, however, are well beyond what you would expect to hear from the historically indie singer-songwriter. Near the halfway point of the album, the tunes take a turn from sweet to almost kitsch. “Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke)” features a mariachi trumpet and guitar sound that is a bit too much, but definitely gets points for being different. “Duncan, Where Have You Gone?” sounds less like Gibbard and more like Keane or John Lennon (a particular influence on Gibbard’s songwriting he mentioned in an interview with Paste magazine). A subtle use of brushes, cymbals, shakers, woodblocks and samba feel makes “Lady Adelaide” another song of a different color. The wild west comes back in “Broken Yolk in a Western Sky,” but the tune has been reworked a bit from what you might have heard from stage in 2004 when it made a few appearances on tour. It has a slick guitar line that recalls campfires, tall tales, big hats, boots & leather oil.
What you can tell from this album is Gibbard’s mastery of songwriting; that he is a songwriter above all else and everything on the album is in support of the lyrics and structure of the songs. What you may not know is that Gibbard is also quite an accomplished musician, playing nearly everything on the album himself. A few tracks he collaborates with Mark Spencer (Sun Volt) and long time friend Jon Wurster (drummer in The Mountain Goats & Superchunk). Aimee Mann & Trio Ellas, as mentioned earlier, have their contributions to a couple of tunes as well. Gibbard recorded with Aaron Espinoza from Earlimart in L.A. who seems to have taken a stay-out-of-the-way approach in the recording. For the most part this album is just Benjamin Gibbard—not quite wearing his heart on his sleeve as we’ve come to know Death Cab for Cutie, but still honest and unassuming.
In case you’re wondering if there are problems in the band and that caused the solo act, the answer is a resounding “no.” Gibbard has already started working on the next Death Cab album and is not looking to set out on his own. The time had simply come to let some of the standbys see the light of day. Former Lives is released on the Barsuk label, Death Cab for Cutie’s longtime associate.