Album Review: Benjamin Gibbard - Former Lives

by Mac Wilson

Album art for Benjamin Gibbard's
Album art for Benjamin Gibbard's "Former Lives" (Album Art)

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We feature myriad albums as our CD of the Week. Many of these records feature weighty emotional themes, sprawling sonic adventures and historical resonance. Benjamin (nee Ben) Gibbard's new solo album, Former Lives, is not one of these albums; in fact, it is one of the slightest albums we've ever featured as CD of the Week. After the occasionally heady and overwrought material Gibbard has recorded with Death Cab for Cutie, though, Former Lives is an unexpectedly breezy delight.

This is a charming little record. Without the pressures of his "real band," you can hear the burdens melt off Gibbard's songwriting, much like Jeff Tweedy has done with his non-Wilco projects. It is clear that this is a place for Gibbard to blow off some steam, relax a bit and do exactly what he wants to do mdash; no more, no less.

Gibbard performed almost every instrument and vocal part by himself mdash; with a few striking exceptions mdash; giving the feel of a ramshackle bedroom project, which suits him well. One of Death Cab's most enduring songs, "I Will Follow You into the Dark," was evidently a first take that wound up being the final master version; this same simplicity runs through the material of Former Lives.

Gibbard exudes the freedom of being able to embrace any direction he chooses, so the album runs a weird yet cohesive gamut of sounds. Over a little more than half an hour, he tries out alt-country, elegant piano ballads, acoustic ditties, power pop and even a cappella in the opening number "Shepherd's Bush Lullaby." (Gibbard helpfully notes in the song's lyric that he is, indeed, singing a cappella.)

Son Volt's Mark Spencer and Superchunk's Jon Wurster play steel guitar and drums, respectively, on a pair of tracks, and Gibbard duets with Aimee Mann on the epic "Bigger Than Love." He's joined by the mariachi band Trio Ellas on the adaptation of Stan Jones' '50s cowboy ballad "Cowpoke," which also features vocals from Zooey Deschanel.

Zooey Deschanel's presence hovers over the entire record, providing a vivid storyline to the record's background. In the wake of Gibbard and Deschanel's well-publicized divorce, it's tempting to view these songs through a prism of intense emotional conflict, and eventually separation. But these songs were written over a span of the decade, which means that moments that may make you think, "Oh, this is OBVIOUSLY a Zooey song," may well be completely fictional, or vice versa. Gibbard has made a career of songs about love, loss and everything in between, and this album features enough character sketches to satisfy fans of both Death Cab and the dearly departed Postal Service.

In the liner notes, Gibbard dedicates the album "to all of [his] former lives." He's not here to talk about the past, but he's perfectly willing to let his music do the talking. Many a fellow will think to themself, "What would I do if I was married to Zooey Deschanel, only to get divorced?" It sounds from Former Lives that Benjamin Gibbard is content to watch Seattle Mariners games, release some tuneful, heartfelt music and hope it resonates with the world. It does.

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