The general public might assume that Benjamin Gibbard’s solo effort Former Lives is a divorce album, a cathartic outlet in the vein of Rumors, Like a Prayer, or Blood on the Tracks, full of tracks about picking up the pieces. But no, Ben says, the album doesn’t concern starting anew in life—it just details “eight years, three relationships, living in two different places, drinking then not drinking…[the songs are] a side story, not a new chapter.”
The tracks on Former Lives work as grown up fodder for Ben Gibbard. If the material is a side story, the main story is the departure from the Death Cab for Cutie sound. As far as anyone can tell, there is no cause for alarm with regards to Death Cab’s future, but could the band be considered a former life as well?
So, as we, know, Former Lives is no couples therapy; it is rather encouraging. Separated-lover’s duet “Bigger Than Love” is a mature tune that doesn’t sound bitter; it’s still a heavy tune, but Aimee Mann takes on the supporting role with gusto here. “Bigger” tells a vivid he-said she-said tale with colorful lyrics and guitar.
Gibbard flexes some Anglo muscles on the a capella intro “Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby” before launching into the jaunt of “Dream Song.” It unfolds with the looping sensibilities of “Yellow Submarine,” following a man with insomnia who is chased in his dreams by “everyone that he ever knew,” wondering when he wakes who is chasing his gal through her dreams. The Beatles sounds continues on “Duncan, Where Have You Gone,” something that would have fit very well way back on 70’s adult contemporary, a heartbreaking track of someone lost.
“Teardrop Windows” echoes mid-90’s alt-rock and Costello and Jeff Lynne and Petty, etc.…and is about Seattle’s Smith Tower. The guitar here is fantastic. Relating the sad story of Smith Tower is an interesting choice; is it merely cute personification for the building to be sad and alone? Or is Gibbard projecting himself in the Tower’s place, a Washington native himself? After all, Smith Tower is constantly referred to with male pronouns, is of a phallic shape, lonely, and maids are the ones who turn off the lights. Something to think about.
The album finds its boisterous strengths when tackling Western sounds in the rest of the album: “Lily” gets a bit too inane with the metaphors (“Lily is the Pacific Ocean and I’m standing at her shores”), but mariachi wailing and horns on “Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke)” make up for those weaknesses. “Oh Woe” may be the most “angry” track from a relationship angle—still not too bitter though. “A Hard One To Know” follows “Woe” in suit with amazing alt-country guitar.
“Lady Adelaide,” one third of the close, slows the pace of Former Lives and adds the haunt of pedal steel; it feels like a spiritual successor to Old 97’s similarly titled song.
“Broken Yolk in Western Sky” a track that Gibbard has been floating around for some time, makes its appearance as the penultimate piece. A true country gem, its lyrics (“Broken yolk in western sky, my stomach turned, my mouth went dry, I knew I’d never known fear before”) are truly a strong point. “I’m Building A Fire,” is a lo-fi live closer that provides a stripped down experience for the listener, Gibbard bearing himself emotionally. Even though they’re side stories, sharing these songs can be a raw experience.