Ben Gibbard’s debut solo album, Former Lives, evokes much of his, well, former life. Everyone knows Death Cab for Cutie was primarily a Gibbard-driven project, which may explain why his solo album doesn’t stray too far from his Death Cab days. If anything, it harkens back to earlier albums by the Pacific Northwest indie-pop group. Lives offers a more stripped down version of Death Cab and a brighter spotlight on the front man, who is trying to separate himself from his past, for better or worse.
And boy, does he try. The first track, “Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby,” opens to Gibbard half-singing, half-chanting, backed by himself on harmony with an a cappella boom-bop. It’s an odd introduction that may confuse listeners tuning in to hear more of what made Gibbard so popular in the first place. Luckily, the opener, “Dream Song,” functions more as an introduction to the more traditional Death Cab. Flush with acoustic guitar chords that bounce back and forth and anchored by a steady bass line, it sounds warmly familiar. Already apparent in the second track, Former Lives focuses on several themes laced in past Death Cab and Postal Service lyrics: sleeping, dreaming, unrequited love, etc. If anything, it’s efficient.
Sure, there are many bands that write about the same things over and over. As the old saying goes, “Go to the well ’till the well runs out.” Gibbard goes to the well, but instead of drinking the water, he tries to purify it then add some Kool Aid mix. Granted, Kool Aid may taste good, but in this case, it doesn’t taste right.
Take “Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke).” The track is, in theory, a simple ooh-ah melody with a mariachi guitar section that should be effective in its modesty. In reality, it sounds like an odd mix of Los Lobos and Beirut with a regular white dude singing. It’s ambitious, and the rhythm is admittedly memorable, though bordering annoying.
This is the paradox Gibbard and so many other front men face when breaking off from a successful band. Do they try to redefine or create a new sound for themselves? Or do they stick to what they know they’re good at and — maybe more importantly — made them popular in the first place? Try the former, and you risk ending up ridiculed for not producing the quality music everyone expects (see: Plastic Ono Band). Stick with the latter, and get ripped for laziness.
Gibbard seems aware of this line and tiptoes along it. There are the quintessential Death Cab songs: the aforementioned “Dream Song,” “Teardrop Windows,” “Bigger than Love,” “A Hard One to Know.” These are what Gibbard fans have come to know and expect in his music: upbeat piano, acoustic, yet twangy guitars and vocals that crescendo in a drawn out, yet infectious chorus. Ballads, lullabies and electric-guitar numbers. Gibbard has proven to be effective with the optimistic, yet heartbroken style of Death Cab as well as the dark, moody, electric vibes of the Postal Service alongside Jimmy Tamborello’s production.
From seemingly out of nowhere, Gibbard has ascended to The Twilight Saga: New Moon Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and UPS commercial fame (and Zooey Deschanel). He is sidestepping his previous careers in an effort to fly solo. He has written lyrics about being left wanting more, usually regarding a romantic relationship. This theme continues in Former Lives, but in a nuanced way. Gibbard is still unfulfilled and longing for love, but this time, it’s the listeners who are left yearning for more.