October 24, 2012

Test Spins: Ben Gibbard, Former Lives

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Anyone who is a fan of Death Cab for Cutie or The Postal Service can recognize Benjamin Gibbard’s distinctive voice immediately. Its clear control of melody is a large part of what makes his music so popular and plentiful. Gibbard is responsible for one album with The Postal Service, a couple of side projects with artists such as Andrew Kenny, Jay Farrar and Feist, and an astounding eight albums with Death Cab. Now, he has his first solo album (out last week) entitled Former Lives.

This album is good because Gibbard’s voice is irresistible, and he carries on the poetry and insight that we are used to hearing in his lyrics. He does more than sing a melody with his songs: He tells a story. Songs like “Dream Song” and “Lady Adelaide” tell tales of ordinary people with surprising profundity. He has a strong perception of everyday experiences, emotion and apathy that is rarely found in other artists. He tells stories like a poet and sings songs like an author. In “Lily,” he sings wisely of love: “Lily is a brass band / Who fills the air with song / Lily is a destination / And she’s where my arms belong.” On the whole, listening to this album is just a pleasure.

Nevertheless, there is something missing from Former Lives. Even though the lyrics are powerful and Gibbard’s voice magnetic, the music is somewhat bland. It sounds very much like your typical, disposable indie tracks. The music is composed mostly of the standard and uninteresting guitar and drums arrangement with little disparity of sound. He varies the rhythm slightly in songs, such as “Duncan, Where Have You Gone?,” but it is generally boring. When you consider Codes and Keys or Narrow Stairs (Death Cab’s last two albums), it simply does not compare. Former Lives lacks the intense string instruments, keyboard and detailed composition that make Death Cab for Cutie’s albums unforgettable. Death Cab’s beautiful complexity of sound is lost when the frontman works alone. Ben Gibbard needs his band.

Gibbard might actually realize this. He sings the first track, “Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby,” entirely a cappella. It’s an interesting artistic choice to open the album with, and I believe it’s Gibbard’s way of reminding us of what he is good at. It’s a brave choice and a smart one. The song is beautiful and provides a valuable introduction to the rest of the album.

“Bigger Than Love” is the best song on the album. It is sweet, catchy and gifted with witty lyrics; it will make for a popular first single. “Bigger Than Love” does not include the harsh guitar riffs that overpower Gibbard’s vocals in songs like “Oh, Woe.”  It is upbeat but honest — Gibbard’s most successful style. I would argue, however, that the album as a whole is too upbeat. It’s fun to listen to, but it lacks Gibbard’s serious side, which he has unforgettably uncovered in the past. The only solemn song is the last one, “I’m Building a Fire.” It is also the only acoustic track on Former Lives, and the album could use more of its kind. The song is haunting and magnificent and demonstrates Gibbard’s sharp sense of sentiment and ability to articulate feeling.

“Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke)” is also an excellent song. Violin and high-toned vocals make it sound more like Andrew Bird and less like Death Cab. It is a new sound for Gibbard, but it works particularly well on this track. “Teardrop Windows,” “A Hard One to Know” and “Broken Yolk in a Western Sky” are all fun, but they all sound too alike and thus leave us uninterested. Individually, they are not bad songs, but all three are not necessary for the album. I would expect more variation and experimentation from Gibbard.

Overall, Former Lives is a success. As one of the most prolific and important indie songwriters of our generation, Gibbard once again impresses us with his astute songwriting. The album’s shortcomings are only due to the high expectations that accompany the man’s stature. The important thing, I think, is that Benjamin Gibbard keeps working. I just hope Death Cab for Cutie gets back together soon.

Original Author: Lucy Goss