Former Lives, 180G Black Vinyl LP, Death Cab For Cutie and The Postal Service's Ben Gibbard's solo release, LIYL: Death Cab For Cutie, Jay Farrar & Benjamin Gibbard "One Fast Move Or I'm Gone"
For a guy whose band is often held up as the epitome of beta-male wimpiness, Benjamin Gibbard writes a lot of mean songs; not passive-aggressive, but genuinely cruel. Death Cab For Cutie managed to pull off "Cath…", "Styrofoam Plates", and especially "Tiny Vessels" because Gibbard rarely writes in a way that makes you think he's talking about himself; Codes & Keys generated most of its lyrics from autobiography, and it's the happiest Death Cab album. This sets up Former Lives in an interesting way. It's the first LP Gibbard is releasing under his own name and also the first music he's released since a very public split with Zooey Deschanel, the inspiration for much of Codes & Keys, which is now an album that's actually way more interesting in hindsight. If there was ever a time for Gibbard to get mean and get personal, it's here. Instead, Former Lives collects 12 songs that span "eight years, three relationships, living in two different places, drinking then not drinking," but somehow feel impersonal, like their main goal was to sound like they could come from someone other than Ben Gibbard.
It's probably coincidental that the cover art of Former Lives bears a strange resemblance to that of 2008's Narrow Stairs, though the juxtaposition of these two records does help elucidate Gibbard's shift in songwriting as a solo artist. In 2009, he attempted to connect with a darker, more intoxicated source of inspiration by communing with the spirit of Jack Kerouac at Big Sur on One Fast Move or I'm Gone, a collaboration with Son Volt's Jay Farrar. On Former Lives, he travels further down the 101 for Los Angeles and specifically the Largo nightclub, agora for the city's mature singer-songwriters and their accomplices, people like Aimee Mann, Jon Brion, and Grant Lee Phillips. They're often called "classicist" and "mature" artists, and with the glaring exception of Fiona Apple, carry themselves more like artisans than artistes.
Mann is one of the L.A.-based well-wishers who contribute to Former Lives, and from the outset, it feels like Gibbard is trying to make them feel at home. The minute-long intro "Shepherd's Bush Lullaby" has a couple of lines that are tempting to read into ("As you sleep an ocean away/ Know that I love you/ My every thought is of you/ The clouds are beginning to break"), yet the focus is entirely on its comparatively outré a cappella harmonies. Same with "Dream Song"; lyrically, it's pure Gibbard, a winding yarn of a couple's sleep states that deals completely in the unsaid and never leaves the space between his own ears. But the tack pianos, stuffy Britpop shuffle, and up-front vocals recall the production on Elliott Smith's "Los Angeles" album Figure 8, the one where his jones for canonical songwriting similarly left his usually candid lyrics prone to glib formula. Likewise, on the he-said/she-said, post-marital post-mortem of "Bigger Than Love", Mann's voice is ingrained with typically hard-won wisdom and disappointment, whereas Gibbard sounds like he has since the beginning, which is to say, boyish and innocent; the dissonance in age makes for an inspired, but miscast duet. -Pirtchfork