Sunday, October 21, 2012

Album Review: Former Lives by Benjamin Gibbard

Benjamin Gibbard is one of those rare modern songwriters who manages to be both prolific and wonderful. Just since the inception of Death Cab For Cutie in 1997 (prior to which, Gibbard fronted a punk rock band called Pinwheel), Gibbard has had at least two major side projects (namely ¡All-Time Quarterback! and The Postal Service), not to mention his collaboration with Andrew Kenny on Home, Volume V, and work on the soundtracks for One Fast Move or I'm Gone (with Jay Farrar) and the recent remake of Arthur, amongst other things.

But Former Lives is his first full-length solo album. It's clear from the fore that this album is not like the work of his bands. Former Lives kicks off with "Shepherd's Bush Lullaby," an a capella tune apparently recorded on an iPhone. At fifty seconds long, "Shepherd's Bush Lullaby" serves more as an intro to the album than a song by itself. "Dream Song," on the other hand, is a splendidly catchy song, with much more Gibbard-esque lyrics. "Dream Song" gives way to "Teardrop Windows," the first song from this album that was made available. "Teardrop Windows" tells an interesting story, but is ultimately dwarfed by the rest of the album.

One of my favorite tracks on the album is "Bigger Than Love," which features Aimee Mann. Mann's voice compliments Gibbard's so perfectly that, at the start of the song, I almost thought Gibbard was using some vocal effects on his own voice. "Bigger Than Love" contains the gorgeous lyric, "...our house got crowded and I'd never felt so all alone," a sentiment many have tried to express, but which is nonetheless poignant in this instance.

"Bigger Than Love" is followed up by another beautiful piece, "Lily." "Lily" contains strong and elegant imagery, along with a folky melody that has touches of early country to it. Gibbard's voice is truly highlighted in this number as well, with minimal instrumentation. "Something's Rattling (Cowpoke)" is a mildly western-style piece, featuring Trio Ellas and vocals by Zooey Deschanel. Trio Ellas play a modern form of mariachi, which gives the piece its feel. Gibbard and Deschanel sing a "chorus" that's somewhere between a humming lullaby and howling, but in a smooth and graceful manner, which makes the voices into truly irreplaceable instruments.

Amongst the weaker tracks on the album is, "Duncan, Where Have You Gone?," a slow whine that could have been rejected from a Death Cab album. The tempo of the album picks back up with "Oh, Woe." Despite the positive feel, "Oh, Woe" is much in the vein of "Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse" by Of Montreal (rather than a song like George Harrison's "Blow Away"), calling for irrational depression to leave. The lyricism of "Oh, Woe" is terrific. Gibbard personifies the emotion, and points out the way depression touches people. He even mentions the romanticized sadness that can draw people in, by speaking of woe like a lover, "...oh, woe you caught my eye//And I thought that I'd give you a try//But you're nothing like the way you looked//in all those famous songs and books."

Another of my favorite tracks is "A Hard One to Know," a rock-ey number with smart lyrics. The chorus is catchier and stronger than that of any other song on the album. "Lady Adelaide" is a slower and softer song than "A Hard One to Know." "Lady Adelaide" tells the sad story of a woman who has become cold due to a broken heart. It features another of my favorite lines from the album, "Now she's a bird with a broken wing//She likes the ideas of things//More than what they are bound to bring." Gibbard delves deepest into country on "Broken Yolk in Western Sky," which features a pedal steel guitar played by Mark Spencer

The album closes on "I'm Building a Fire." "I'm Building a Fire," much like "Shepherd's Bush Lullaby," is quiet and gentle, and it features only vocals and guitar. Gibbard recorded "I'm Building a Fire" using Garageband. "Shepherd's Bush Lullaby" and "I'm Building a Fire" create lovely bookends for an already brilliant album.

Benjamin Gibbard's songwriting rarely disappoints me, so it's no surprise that Former Lives is already one of my favorite albums of the year. His melodies and lyrics are just as sharp (and, at times, cute) as ever. While I would be inconsolable if Death Cab For Cutie never put another album out, I think Former Lives and future Gibbard solo works could help treat the woulds.

 Benjamin Gibbard is a singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Former Lives is his debut solo album.

Former Lives can be purchased here.

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