Benjamin Gibbard, ‘Former Lives’ (Barsuk)
Release Date: October 16, 2012
Doesn’t the notion of a Ben Gibbard solo album seem quaint? Already, his best-known work is a side project, the Postal Service, which produced the crossover smash (“Such Great Heights”) that his main gig, Death Cab for Cutie, has never quite managed. Plus, that side project’s cuddly electropop steez has since been sharked by Owl City, an inexplicable maker of No. 1 hits of such blatant Gibbard dopplegängery that even DCFC guitarist Chris Walla couldn’t resist taking a shot on Twitter. And this isn’t really his solo debut, either: That would be early project ¡All-Time Quarterback!.
Perhaps, Gibbard simply has never felt more alone. Hipster Runoff will tell you that the man who spells out his full name here has something to get off his chest: “This record is dedicated to all my former lives,” go the liner notes, suggesting that this is indeed the Zooey Deschanel divorce album he’s too polite to saddle on his real band (though he claims that Former Lives spans, golly, three relationships). But mostly, this is where Gibbard stakes his claim as a serious songwriter, in the Music Row sense: harmonies echo every line on the country-Hollies single “Teardrop Windows,” as well as duet with Aimee Mann on “Bigger Than Love.”
But with Death Cab, he’d already discovered his ideal songwriter mode, locating the wit in concrete domesticity — “The glove compartment is inaccurately named / And everybody knows it / So I’m proposing a swift orderly change,” from “Title and Registration” on 2003’s Transatlanticism. Here, his idea of serious songwriting mistakes abstraction for profundity, although the two-minute “Lily” isn’t there to showcase the image of a “five-alarm fire” in his heart, it’s to show off the stretchy melisma his larynx can now manage; it’s a trick that doesn’t work as well on the super-solo (done in Garageband!) “I’m Building a Fire,” which challenges duet partner Jenny Lewis to a duel she already won with “Acid Tongue.”
But all those abstractions are a problem. Maybe the Avett Brothers could bring off “Oh woe, why do you stay / And make me feel this awful way” with a boogie, but not Gibbard; and no one comes to mind who could save “I’ve weathered more than I can take / Of your ever-present lonely ache.” His musical ambitions, from the mariachi band on “Something’s Rattling” to the anthemic “Hey Jude”/”Let It Be” foray of “Duncan, Where Have You Gone,” are equally stale.
“A Hard One to Know” lists grievances both whimsical (“You’re like a flower garden buried in snow”) and uncomfortable (“First you smother then you disengage”), though Gibbard claims the subject of “Lady Adelaide” has never heard the words “I love you” (three words that Deschanel probably has shouted at her daily by complete strangers). The couplet, “She likes the ideas of things / More than what they are bound to bring” could be one of the most astringent Hollywood kiss-offs of all time, but Gibbard is dead set on proving there’s no hard feelings (Zooey herself sings backup on “Something’s Rattling,” lest we mistakenly smell blood).
So where, say, Loudon Wainwright III would’ve named this record Former Wives and had a ball stewing in asshole self-mockery, Former Lives has more in common with a different divorceé: The Simpsons’ own hopeless, punch-less pushover Kirk Van Houten. For all his three relationships spanned and catchy tunes composed, Gibbard is too nice to dish it out, and too bland to reveal any meaningful lessons learned.
Can someone lend him a jar of love?