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Benjamin Gibbard is not a man known for ineffectual side projects. From his Kerouac homage One Fast Move or I’m Gone and his lo-fi EPs as ¡All-Time Quarterback!, through to the cult success of The Postal Service, he has a strong track record. His debut solo album, Former Lives, though not exactly a blemish on his record, is unfortunately not going to top any of his previous releases, Death Cab or otherwise.
You might be expecting a change in sound. Surely the point of going solo, whilst remaining in your bread-and-butter band (Gibbard has assured fans that 'the health of Death Cab for Cutie has never been better'), is to strike out, experimenting beyond the boundaries imposed on you by the day-job band. Away from the Chilis, John Frusciante went uncommercially experimental. Away from Bloc Party, Kele plunged deep into electro. But away from Death Cab, Gibbard still sounds very Death Cab. You might want to look at Pete Doherty’s Grace/Wastelands to find a solo record with more common ground. They’re both coherent, relatively unexciting, collections of old songs gathered together - whilst both artists strived for the appearance of maturity by reverting to their full 'oh God I’m really in trouble now' names, becoming Benjamin and Peter to give the illusion of change. Gibbard insists that these songs are separate from his work with Death Cab for Cutie, written on the road rather than in the mandated bursts of writing prior to recording, but ultimately, you feel that there’s an easier explanation for why these Death Cab-sounding songs didn’t make it onto any of their albums.
Any initial enthusiasm for our old indie-superstar (marrying Zooey Deschanel, appearing on the O.C. – the man lived my mid Noughties dream) takes a serious battering from the get-go; the opener is certainly off-putting. ‘Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby’ is a horrible self-sampling a capella, audibly recorded on an iPhone and with uncharacteristically crap lyrics to match; “Under my umbrella, I sing acapella, this melancholy whimsical tune”. Easily the album’s low point, but fortunately it’s brief.
Elsewhere, ‘Lily’, ‘A Hard One to Know’ and ‘Oh, Woe’ all fall short of Gibbard’s former great heights, remaining his trademark traits but missing the lyrical depth and strength of melody usually so evident in his writing. But for its lack of punch line, ‘Lady Adelaide’ could be a Ben Gibbard spoof; all looping, lulling guitars and vaguely miserable lyrics but without any of his usual insight. It’s far more figurative than previous lyrics, missing pinpointing tragedies (glove boxes, single beds etc) as he has previously done so well.
However, Gibbard still has 15 years with Death Cab and everything else under his belt. And though Former Lives is certainly flawed, there’s many a moment when you’re simply unable to forget his talents. First single ‘Teardrop Windows’ is the most memorable track, with the metaphorical and melodic depth that you would have expected to define this album. Personifying the landmarks of his hometown Seattle, Gibbard pits the ousted, somewhat depressed Smith Tower against the imposter Space Needle, contrasting the sad tale, as is tradition, with jangly, upbeat backing.
On ‘Bigger Than Love’, a duet with Aimee Mann inspired by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s letters with appropriately crazy/romantic lyrics, there’s no denying that Ben’s hit one home. With more substantial guitars, it’s reminiscent of The Photo Album-era Death Cab but with the conversational vocals refreshing the old format. A further exploration of new ground comes on ‘Duncan, Where Have You Gone?’, a take on washed-out Sixties surf, with an laconic, rich solo. Pure californication, and the only real reflection of Gibbard’s move south to L.A., the city he so famously derided in ‘Why You’d Want to Live Here’. There are even some moments when he steps outside his comfort-genre, pushing into country (with ‘Broken Yolk in Western Sky’ –slide guitars, bizarrely Dire Straits-esque) and later flirting with a Mariachi band (‘Something’s Rattling).
In Gibbard’s own words, Former Lives is a creative cleaning of the slate, leaving him free to progress onwards and start from scratch for the next Death Cab for Cutie record. While it’s obviously been personally cathartic, you have to think that it’s far from the best record Benjamin could have put out. Perhaps we should just be grateful we dodged a filler Death Cab album, and make the best of what’s here.