Release Date: Oct 16, 2012
Record label: Barsuk
What do you do when the world's most flawless bangs walk out on you? Ben Gibbard – the former Mr. Zooey Deschanel and chief of Death Cab for Cutie – mourned with a solo set of Beatles-nuzzling ballads so pretty they'd make any actress jealous. As always, it's fascinating how much emotion Gibbard represses, squeezing out his quaver like so much icing on Cupcake Wars.
The recently single Death Cab for Cutie frontman (he split from wife Zooey Deschanel last year) sheds his band to work out some ideas that’ve been rattling around in his head for years. That makes for a sometimes disjointed album, encompassing everything from Western twang to mariachi horns to Aimee Mann duets, but Gibbard has put his stamp on it all. His earnest songwriting — ”a bird with a broken wing,” ”the five-alarm fire that rages inside my heart,” etc.
For those expecting some kind of heart-on-the-sleeve break-up album from Ben Gibbard’s debut solo album and first release following the Death Cab frontman’s much-publicized divorce from Zooey Deschanel, listeners won’t find such immediate personal allusions on Former Lives. Supposedly collecting castaway pieces spanning across eight years, Gibbard treats them like anything but, elevating songs such as Aimee Mann duet “Bigger Than Love” and piano ballad “Duncan, Where Have You Gone?” Gibbard has better demonstrated his strength as one of the best songwriters of the last decade in the past, but ardent fans will appreciate the effort here. .
It may come a surprise that Ben Gibbard, best known for his work as chief songwriter and singer for Death Cab for Cutie, is just now releasing his first solo album. And, given his track record when recording away from his band (including his underrated collaboration of Jack Kerouac-inspired tunes with Jay Farrar on One Fast Move or I’m Gone, his stunning duet with Feist on their cover “Train Song,” and, of course, The Postal Service, which might turn into the 2000’s equivalent of Neutral Milk Hotel in both unexpected popularity and ever-growing mythology), fans had every reason to anticipate a strong set of tunes from the gentle-singing songsmith. In turn, Former Lives shares little in common with any of those Death Cab diversions, and rightfully so as they were all collaborative efforts and Former Lives was primarily recorded with Gibbard playing all the instruments himself.
Review Summary: In London it’s raining, but I’m not complaining. Referring to Former Lives as the “new Benjamin Gibbard record” feels a bit strange to be honest, because if nothing else it’s difficult to ascribe such an adjective to an album which feels completely similar in style to the material that the American singer-songwriter has already put out over the past fifteen years or so. Sure, the production quality has definitely gone up over the years, the hooks have become more sanguine, and even Gibbard himself appears to have developed a craftier edge to his wordplay (this particular record, for instance, contains the deliciously-titled number “Broken Yolk in Western Sky”).
To those of you waiting in vulturous speculation over what might have been Ben (or, for the sake of Former Lives, Benjamin) Gibbard's post-divorce catharsis record: at ease. Former Lives is, in actuality, something of a scrapbook of the Death Cab for Cutie frontman's songwriting from the last eight years—hence the collection's title looking wistfully over its shoulder. Eagle-eyed listeners may even recognize "Broken Yolk in Western Sky" from Gibbard's 2007 appearance in the Seattle volume of property-demolishing music documentary DVD series Burn to Shine.
Benjamin Gibbard, lead singer and songwriter of Death Cab For Cutie, is one of those guys who can’t seem to let a year go by without getting involved in some sort of recording project. It’s a work ethic that is common among the early 2000’s indie-rock wunderkinds, guys like James Mercer and Conor Oberst whose songwriting engines are far too fertile to be contained by a single band. That’s why it’s somewhat surprising that it’s taken so long for Gibbard to get around to recording a solo album.
There was a time when Benjamin Gibbard seemed poised to become the great metaphysical poet of indie rock. Following up on the free-floating imagery and impressionistic relationship drama on early Death Cab for Cutie releases, he’d found a way to focus his ingenious metaphors into extended conceits, from winter-chilled teeth clicking out a Morse code message of self-reflection (“I Was a Kaleidoscope”) to a glove compartment’s unintended role as a memory repository (“Title And Registration”). Where John Donne once proposed bridging the distance between lovers through figurative thin expanses of gold and twin compasses, Gibbard wished that “The world was flat like the old days / So I could travel just by folding a map.
For a guy whose band is often held up as the epitome of beta-male wimpiness, Benjamin Gibbard writes a lot of mean songs; not passive-aggressive, but genuinely cruel. Death Cab For Cutie managed to pull off "Cath…", "Styrofoam Plates", and especially "Tiny Vessels" because Gibbard rarely writes in a way that makes you think he's talking about himself; Codes & Keys generated most of its lyrics from autobiography, and it's the happiest Death Cab album. This sets up Former Lives in an interesting way.
Benjamin Gibbard is not a man known for ineffectual side projects. From his Kerouac homage One Fast Move or I’m Gone and his lo-fi EPs as ¡All-Time Quarterback!, through to the cult success of The Postal Service, he has a strong track record. His debut solo album, Former Lives, though not exactly a blemish on his record, is unfortunately not going to top any of his previous releases, Death Cab or otherwise.
Ben Gibbard is to Death Cab for Cutie as the brain and spinal cord are to the body’s central nervous system. The band, which made the journey from indie favorite to rock-radio staple over the course of four years, would simply cease to exist without the coordinative efforts of their formative frontman. In fact, Death Cab for Cutie was initially a solo project that over time grew into a full-fledged band.
A Ben Gibbard solo album might not be completely redundant, but even though Former Lives is the first album branded with this indie singer/songwriter's given name, it's not his first solo endeavor. Gibbard operated solo for a while under the All-Time Quarterback! moniker and even Death Cab for Cutie grew out of his solo acoustic songs into a full-fledged band. This album gathers together 12 songs written over an eight-year period, and the spaced-out nature of the writing shows in how varied the songs are from one another stylistically.
The success that Benjamin “Ben” Gibbard and Death Cab For Cutie have accrued over the years might have once seemed improbable during the band’s earnest beginnings, but it didn’t happen by accident. 2005’s Plans launched the little Seattle band that could into the stratosphere, and subsequent records 2008’s Narrow Stairs and 2011’s Codes and Keys kept the momentum generated by the band’s heart-on-sleeve indie pop going. Gibbard knows he has a good thing going for him, and after more than 15 years in the indie trenches, he knows how to play to his strengths.