Ben Gibbard – Former Lives
by Leslie Fowle (English/Journalism), published October 23rd 2012
Moldy | Stale | Edible | Fresh | Tasty!
Cath. Sarah. Kelly Huckaby. An interior decorator. A beautiful girl with light brown streaks. Since Death Cab for Cutie’s inception in 1997 lead man Ben Gibbard has dreamt up a host of characters whose experiences are as chillingly relatable as they are haunting. (Who will ever forget what Sarah said?) Now, a decade and a half later, Gibbard has come out with his first solo album which spans “eight years, three relationships, living in two different places, drinking then not drinking.” To its detriment, the aptly named Former Lives is more of a collection of songs, strung together piecemeal through the years, than it is a cohesive album.
Even the characters that populate Former Lives are a motley crew. Gibbard expands his cast to include inanimate objects in the first single off the album, “Teardrop Windows,” which expounds signature Death Cab themes of loneliness and abandonment but applies them to Seattle’s Smith Tower. In “Oh, Woe” Gibbard takes a stab at also personifying a feeling—a move that renders the song insufferably glib and probably better off sung by his ex-wife. Other characters include “Lily,” the object of such trite lines as, “Lily is a big brass band/Who fills the air with song/Lily is a destination/And she’s where my arms belong,” and Duncan, the sad-sack protagonist of “Duncan, Where Have You Gone” whose “biggest dream is just to be a stranger, passed on the street.”
Speaking of Gibbard’s ex-wife, if you’re looking for Zooey Deschanel she can be found faintly singing backup on one of the album’s stronger tracks, “Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke).” Former Lives marks the first release since the couple’s split late last year, yet is conspicuously lacking in any heartbreak that is solely Gibbard’s own. A few exceptions include the short but sweet “Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby” and “I’m Building a Fire,” the opening and closing tracks, respectively. “I’m Building a Fire,” reminiscent of Death Cab’s “I Will Follow You into the Dark,” is especially raw and was recorded and produced in Garageband by Gibbard himself with nothing but his guitar. “Broken Yoke in Western Sky,” a track that is a regular during Gibbard’s live acoustic sets but has until now never appeared on record, also tells the story of a break-up, but to the tune of twangy Southern strings.
If each of the tracks on Former Lives indeed reflect a life Gibbard has once lived, he has been many people in his 36 years. Still, it’s hard not to wish for the Gibbard we’ve all come to know through Death Cab and his other projects like The Postal Service and All-Time Quarterback. Gibbard is a poetic and clever songwriter who could turn any fleeting moment into song, like a glance at a rip in a woman’s dress, or a fumbling peek into a glove compartment. Former Lives, however, lacks this gift of substance in nothingness, and ultimately vanishes away before you can press repeat.
Recommended Tracks: Bigger Than Love, Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke), Broken Yoke in Western Sky