Benjamin Gibbard - Former Lives
Record Label: Barsuk
Release Date: Oct. 16, 2012
There's no denying the power and grace of singer-songwriter Benjamin "Ben" Gibbard. Whether its the yarns spun in the electro-pop project The Postal Service, the veering narratives regaled in Death Cab for Cutie and All Time Quarterback, or the Kerouc-inspired balladry from 2010's One Fast Move or I'm Gone, Gibbard has a distinct pulse on how to write songs that make an impact and yet still say something profound. Anyone who needs further convincing needs only to listen to Former Lives, Gibbard's long-awaited full length solo debut. Comprised of many songs he has tucked away for years, the album is everything one might expect from a Gibbard solo album: daring, delicate, verbose and indelible.
The disc's opener "Shepherd's Bush Lullaby," is an a cappella effort that serves more as a prologue than that of a pop song, but serves itself well and opens things winningly. The buoyant and jaunty "Dream Song," follows and its a heartland folk song of the finest order. Jangly, jubilant and deeply melodic, it's a fine step forward and another notch on the proverbial belt for the well-heeled veteran. Former Lives makes its first splash on "Teardrop Windows," an expansive and fuller effort than the prior two and as poignant and self-defeating than anything he's written in quite some time. Certainly we've heard Gibbard sing about "too many vacancies," and "feeling too empty," but never has he sounded more despondent, more vulnerable and more alive.
A delicate piano enters the fray on "Bigger Than Love," and gradually the song evolves into an ebullient and effortless romp. An easy choice for a first single, "Bigger Than Love," relates the tale of a young couple grappling with the struggles of raising a family. Its weighty subject matter is married by Gibbard's tender tenor vocals, and the end results are nothing short of glowing and gleaming. How one can marry such dense lyrical matter into something so harmonic is truly touching. To put it succinctly, "Bigger Than Love," is a tonic for all of us; a modern masterpiece for all of us to rest our heads against.
Never one to shy away from a love song, Gibbard puts his best foot forward on the intimate and warm "Lily," which enters into contention as one of the year's best valentines and seems destined to be played at weddings and anniversaries. Following "Something's Rattling (Cowpoke)," is arguably Gibbard's most daring song to date and also one of his best. Vaudevillian in scope, "Something's Rattling," sounds like 1940s Paris set to music. But indeed, the best is still yet to come. The timeless piano ballad "Duncan, Where Have You Gone?," is without a doubt the album's apex. Layered, sweeping and rich, it has a Beatles-esque sentiment that is as solacing and self-affirming than probably anything Gibbard has ever released.
"Oh, Woe," is a ringing and dusty heartland anthem that attempts to shed disappointment and doubt in the hopes of something better. There aren't many who could pen the words, "It's been a basement of a year, all I want is for you to disappear," and have it sound so soothing, sincere and sympathetic. But therein lies the charm and grace of Gibbard. On the shuffling and bouncy "A Hard One to Know," he sings about a woman that's hard to love and even harder to resist. Shuffling, bouncy and bright, "A Hard One To Know," is uber-catchy and nothing short of irresistible.
Former Lives' closing triumvirate is as strong as any released this year and exactly the kind of finish one might expect from one of America's most beloved songwriters. The quiet placidity of "Lady Adelaide," has an airy and atmospheric quality that is affecting, intimate and exquisite. Ostensibly a yarn about a heartbroken girl, it manages to navigate the anguish and despair in a way unlike few of his contemporaries. Its successor, "Broken Yolk in Western Sky," uses a lilting lap steel to construct a dusty alt. country sendup that hints at the tone of Big Sur, but goes deeper. In many ways, "Broken Yolk in Western Sky," feels like a harbinger of things to come. Before he hangs it up for good, Gibbard will most certainly release a country-leaning disc and "Broken Yolk in Western Sky," points to that.
The disc grinds to a halt on the folky "I'm Building a Fire," in which he channels his inner troubadour and offers up some old-school balladry not unlike Roy Orbison. Anchored by the verse, "The night is only a temporary absence of light," "I'm Building a Fire," is hopeful and shines like a beacon in the night. Never one to shy away from life-affirming koans, "I'm Building a Fire," is everything that makes Gibbard great.
That Former Lives is so impressive is certainly no surprise to the many who have spent hours listening to his music. But there's a certain risk and danger in releasing a solo album and Gibbard meets the fate head-on with nothing short of confidence, professionalism and charisma. There's a reason so many cling to his every word and utterance and Former Lives is only a testament to all those who chose to do so.
Not sure I'd rate it this high, but I spun it tonight and I read some AP.net user opinions before that got me discouraged... so I put it on and its like "oh that was good, I'll come back to that" after almost every song. The first song and that god-awful Cowpoke song are the only two off my iTunes
Awesome review Gregory. I didn't understand all of the negative comments I was seeing previously. This album is beautiful and really shows a new dimension to Ben - one that is more simple, melodic and focused. I enjoy this album from start to finish with Duncan being played on repeat.
I was hoping you would review this, Greg! Spot on review, this album is definitely in my top 10 for the year. The lyrics are just phenomenal. This is right up there with Plans and Give Up, my two other favorite releases of his.
No way! Reccomended if you like sadness?
Seriously though, intersting RIYL. I love Death Cab although I thought the last two albums lacked, but I do have a thing for solo records. I'm trying to stay open to this so I can check it out for myself.
First review I've read of this that hasn't mentioned Zooey
Thank you for that.
No review of this should mention Zooey since most, if not all of these songs were written before all that. Anyway I thiought this album was painfully boring. I'm going to try and give this another full spin because I don't want to dislike this album but it just hasn't grabbed me yet. Good review but IMO it is very very generous.