Ben Gibbard – Former Lives (2012)

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I’m not sure Ben Gibbard, recording his first-ever solo album away from Death Cab for Cutie, has ever sounded more alone. And in that scary freedom, in that essential stillness, he experiments in ways we haven’t heard before.

The album was written over a lengthy period that saw Gibbard find some measure of mainstream fame with Death Cab, even while creating a fantastic side project called the Postal Service with Jimmy Tamborello. But it seems to deal more with the subtext of that same era, as Gibbard got married and then divorced from actress Zooey Deschanel, bouncing from his native Seattle to LA and back again. In this way, Former Lives, due October 16, 2012 from hometown label Barsuk, is no doubt properly named.

Even so, Gibbard seems to be staking out, within moments that never fit into his many other projects, a whole new life in song. This is, without question, his most varied album.

After a melancholy acapella opener, the recorded-down-the-iPhone “Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby,” Gibbard gets down to business with “Dream Song” — a tune that is both rhythmically propulsive and somehow utterly desolate: “He counts the hours, creeping by … tossing and turning through the night,” Gibbard sings, before the track is swept into a dreamscape reverie, first with strings and then a impossibly close piano. There’s something that’s keeping him awake — something that can’t be seen, but yet can’t be escaped from either. Later, “Teardrop Windows” presents as an insistent folk-based treatise, but underneath there is the same kind of doubt.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: With 2005’s “Summer Skin,” Death Cab created something both meaningful and idiosyncratic. Even years later, the tune still finds new ways to illuminate.]

Gibbard, in pre-release interviews, won’t say what these tracks are or aren’t about, but one thing is certain: They came from a quiet place. It’s not until “Bigger Than Love,” a tune based on letters between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, that Gibbard approaches the feel and power of Death Cab for Cutie — but even then Gibbard shakes things up by including a guest vocal from Aimee Mann.

Though recorded in spurts over a long period of time, there remains an interesting complexity to this album — and what feels like a clear idea about moving away from expectations: Stripped-down paeans like “Lily” and “Lady Adelaide” saunter out like front-porch offerings, informal and yet completely raw and honest, but then Gibbard turns it all into a nudge and a wink with “Something’s Rattling,” a mariachi-inspired narrative of splendid isolation.

The Beatle-esque “Duncan, Where Have You Gone” has a devastating beauty, like a long sad goodbye. “Oh, Woe” boasts a fuzzy, all-attitude modernity. But then “Broken Yolk in Western Sky” — the oldest of the tracks here, dating back to the mid-2000s — settles into the timeless nostalgia of a classic country song.

Gibbard ends with “I’m Building a Fire,” a track that sounds like it was recorded in a backroom, alone — of course — with only his guitar. “The night,” Gibbard is quick to remind, “is only a temporary absence of light.”

But it’s in that darkness, sometimes, that we hear our truest thoughts. Former Lives is a great reminder of that.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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