Ben Gibbard has certainly had his share of heartbreak and trauma. Stick on any Death Cab for Cutie or Postal Service album (there's only one of the latter) and lyrics like "She is beautiful, but she don't mean a thing to me" or "I am finally seeing, why I was the one worth leaving," will not be the exception, but the rule. What has always made Gibbard such a formidable force in alternative music is his ability to express an emotion in an accessible and simplistic way; this is no bad thing, and its effectiveness is evidenced by his longevity. To a lot of people he is a gateway to alternative music, allowing listeners to ease themselves in, rather than being scared off by less accessible indie artists such as Grizzly Bear or Animal Collective. However, I maintain that when Gibbard is on form he is amongst the finest songwriters in modern music.
There must have been quite a shadow cast from being in one of alternative music's biggest bands, however, when you listen to Former Lives you get the impression that stepping out alone is a hugely cathartic experience for the Seattle native. According to Gibbard the material for the album has been accumulated over the past 8 years and covers "three relationships, living in two different places, drinking then not drinking." That's a lot of potential pain to draw upon (especially when you consider that one of these is his extremely public divorce with indie heartthrob, Zooey Deschanel), but in truth, although there is significant pain and angst on Former Lives, it never threatens to overwhelm the album.
Opener 'Shepherd's Bush Lullaby' is a whimsical a capella number which strays significantly from the Death Cab mould. It is hard to judge too thoroughly on its fifty second length, however, Gibbard's delivery on the lyrics "know that I love you, my every dream is of you. The clouds are beginning to break" is truly beautiful. The silence which follows blends smoothly into 'Dream Song' where we are welcomed by a much more familiar sound. Driving military drums and a dynamic bass line give this song a very 'Plans' era sound (the bass line in particular has touches of 'Summer Skin'). The song's dark content of being haunted by past loves is polarised fantastically with its upbeat tempo. On 'Teardrop Windows' we find Gibbard in one of the aforementioned spots of form and the results are one of the most heartfelt and clever songs he's crafted on recent albums. The track details Seattle's Smith Tower, which was once the jewel of the Seattle skyline but has since been forced out of the frame by the iconic Space Needle and other taller or otherwise attention-grabbing structures. One doesn't take a PHD in English to recognise the transferability of lyrics like "in 1962 the Needle made its big debut, and everybody forgot what it outgrew"; however, its genius is in making the complicated simple.
This being Gibbard's first album recorded in LA, he calls upon some of the locals to give him a some help – luckily when you're as big as he is, that help comes in the form of Aimee Mann's rich baritone vocals on 'Bigger Than Love'. This pounding indie-rock anthem has the two musicians strutting their stuff musically, and stands aloft as one of the albums highlights.
After a strong start to the album, Former Lives struggles to maintain its quality, and the latter half could only be described as a 'mixed bag'. We kick things off with 'Lily'; a pleasant, though slightly bland, acoustic ballad. Despite a strong melody, it is paired up with some of the weakest lyrics on the album, with Gibbard spluttering through clichés like "Lily's the Pacific Ocean, and I'm standing at her shores." Next up is the surreal 'Something's Rattling (Cowpoke)'. Doused in classical guitar and stifled brass, the results are unfortunately less of the Neil Young inspired Americana, and are more reminiscent of an Old El Paso advert. It's clear that Gibbard is keen to try new things as a soloist, with 'Duncan, Where Have You Gone?' (just like the previous track,) straying significantly from the traditional Death Cab sound; this time by way of a melancholic Beatles-esque vibe. The verse floats by with Gibbard's soaring vocals and reverbed piano, before peaking with a fantastically constructed interlude.
"It's been a basement of a year" proclaims Gibbard in the heavily auto-biographical 'Oh, Woe'. Detailing the breakdown of his marriage and the media pressure which followed, this is a track rich in betrayal and angst. It is sentiments such as these that I expected Former Lives to be littered with and it is to his credit that he hasn't just made a 'breakup album', but something much more diverse. It appears that he is keen to step away from his title as poster boy for angst ridden alt-indie and cast his themes further afield ("Oh, woe, please hear this plea, to walk away and leave me be"). Speeding indie-pop number 'A Hard One to Know' follows; with its infectious melody and rhythm it's a welcome turn of pace to the record. Sandwiched between two of the album's weaker tracks ('Lady Adelaide' and 'I'm Building a Fire') the album throws up one of its shining moments on penultimate track 'Broken Yolk in Western Sky'. Layered in slide guitar and Americana melodies, it tells the story of a cowardly man, running away from the woman in his life. Back to his lyrical best, he delivers lines such as - "my love is like some kind of greed, Of equal portions, want and need, And I cannot divorce the two" - with astounding honesty and vulnerability.
Former Lives is unlikely to be anyone's favourite album with which Gibbard is associated; however, it still stands as a strong debut. The main issue with the album is around the 8 year gestation period in which the songs were accumulated. Writing over such an extended period has resulted in the themes and styles of the album being hugely varied and it is to the detriment of having a cohesive record. Clearly keen to experiment outside of his usual musical outlet, we could well see something truly special from Gibbard as a soloist, but for now it looks like we'll have wait for that difficult second album.