Review Summary: In London it’s raining, but I’m not complaining.
Referring to Former Lives
as the “new Benjamin Gibbard record” feels a bit strange to be honest, because if nothing else it’s difficult to ascribe such an adjective to an album which feels completely similar in style to the material that the American singer-songwriter has already put out over the past fifteen years or so. Sure, the production quality has definitely gone up over the years, the hooks have become more sanguine, and even Gibbard himself appears to have developed a craftier edge to his wordplay (this particular record, for instance, contains the deliciously-titled number “Broken Yolk in Western Sky”). Yet the fact remains that contained herein are simply twelve more cuts of the same: introspective – yet perpetually Facebook status-worthy – observations about temporal restlessness, earnest longing, and simply falling in and out of love.
That’s really more of an optics-based argument against Former Lives
than anything else, though, for Gibbard is still easily one of the best and most accessible indie rock songwriters of our time. But basically the point I’m trying to make here is this: that it’s simply quite hard to get terribly
excited about a Ben Gibbard release in this day and age, as by now everyone already knows – at least roughly – what to expect. That said though, Former Lives
is the Washington native’s first collection of new material since Codes and Keys
, the album he released in the middle of last year with his bandmates at Death Cab for Cutie. In terms of sonic progression – in as far as the term is applicable to Gibbard’s work – this places Former Lives
somewhere between the vintage, keyboard-driven oeuvre of Codes and Keys
, the dreary self-loathing of 2008’s Narrow Stairs
, and the lo-fi melancholy of the Home Volume V
split LP that he released with Andrew Kenny (of The American Analog Set) back in 2003. But let’s not pretend to ignore the white elephant standing in the middle of the room here, for we all know that the time-place set that the tabloids will insist on using for the entirety of this record is none other than the year 1 AD (After Deschanel).
But if there’s a Zooey Deschanel song anywhere to be had on this tub I’m certainly not hearing it, for from start-to-finish Gibbard charts a guitar-driven path through a series of gentle, end-of-autumn hymnals that are not only openly optimistic in tone, but also sufficiently grounded in their own unique storylines to cut off any suspicion that there’s an actual life event that the artist might be alluding to. “Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby”, for instance, opens affairs by enveloping the record with a simple, longing air that brings to mind two young, star-crossed lovers occupied with the trials of their forced separation. “And know that I love you/My every thought is of you/Oh the clouds are beginning to break,” croons Gibbard. Elsewhere, second track “Dream Song” sees the artist narrating the travails of an insomniac haunted by emotional insecurity, which can hardly be said to be material that is directly related to Gibbard’s own divorce. Interestingly though, it’s hard to escape the sense that the song somehow contrives to come off sounding like vintage Death Cab for Cutie material – especially with what sounds suspiciously like a Nicholas Harmer bassline reverberating in the background.
But while Gibbard famously said during the production of Codes and Keys
that, "I would be remiss if I tried to continue writing in a solely melancholic voice, given the fact that now I'm a married man,” his eventual divorce hasn’t exactly prevented him from sounding happy either. Mid-album track “Lily”, for instance, is nothing short of a shameless love paean: “Lily is the Pacific Ocean – and I’m standing at her shores/Lily she is never-ending – there is so much left in store/And all I want to do is tell her that my love is true.” Then there’s the Aimee Mann-assisted “Bigger than Love”, which also belies a similarly exuberant heart: “It’s bigger than love,” insist the pair, “Brighter than all the stars combined/It’s dwarfing the sun/Burning within my heart and mind.” Call it melodramatic, if you like, but know this: the sentiment is so overpowering that it doesn’t seem to matter in the slightest that Gibbard actually spends the rest of the track detailing the plight of a modern family struggling through economic constraints and alcoholism.
In terms of overall quality though, it has to be said that things noticeably pick up in the album’s second half, as any traditional indie rock sensibilities that Gibbard may have initially had start to recede and are replaced by a grittier, slightly more abstract edge. “Duncan, Where Have You Gone"”, for example, is itself solely responsible for two of the album’s most memorable moments, namely the lovely, swaying choral arrangements employed in the song’s choruses and Gibbard’s very own bluesy guitar solo at the very end. “A Hard One to Know” and the aforementioned “Broken Yolk in Western Sky” follow, the former a catchy, high-tempo number in the vein of Transatlanticism
’s “The Sound of Settling” and the latter an abstract, lyrically open-ended take on a doomed relationship. But while I'd be the first to admit that five or six consecutive solid songs do not a spectacular album make, these tracks still allow Former Lives
to finish on a deeply satisfying note, and, given how “new” can be such a relative term with Mr Gibbard, I’m not complaining.