“An album about ‘three relationships, living in two different places, drinking, and then not drinking’…”
Benjamin Gibbard | Former Lives
When it was announced that Benjamin Gibbard would be releasing a solo album, many assumed there would be lyrics cold enough to give frost bite to his gorgeous ex-wife Zooey Deschanel actress. Across Former Lives, Gibbard instead writes about the last eight years which have consisted of “three relationships, living in two different places, drinking, and then not drinking”. It makes for a good listen, but perhaps the most surprising and disappointing thing about his debut solo outing is that none of the lyrics personal. He writes in a way that tells us who the characters are rather than showing us.
In ‘Lady Adelaide’, for example, although overflowing with couplets such as “colder than a wave in the Arctic Ocean”, “bird with a broken wing”, or “she is a bed that’s been unmade”, we are told who she is, but never how she acted. It’s frustratingly vague. There has been better writing on previous Death Cab For Cutie albums (for which band, Gibbard is the lead writer and singer), but the other songs on this album make up for the few less-than-shining songs.
Songs such as ‘Oh, Woe’ or ‘A Hard One to Know’ are simply very good. The former has thoughtful lyrics that show Benjamin has not lost his “Gibbard-ness” that make listening to a Death Cab For Cutie album (like Plans or Narrow Stairs for example) so great of an experience. In it, in sings, “Oh, Woe please hear this plea: to walk away and leave me be. I’ve weathered more than I can take of your ever present lonely ache. It’s been a basement of a year and all I want’s for you to disappear” after a break from lyrics with a fast progression on an electric guitar. The song itself talks about a relationship that didn’t live up to expectations. It is that type of relatable storyline that connects Gibbard fans all over, and when he adds the right amount of personal detail like he does here, the final product is a wonderfully memorable song that stays in the minds of listeners for weeks. The latter talks about how his girl is frustrating and annoyingly complicated with lyrics like, “Around your heart you’ve tied a fishing line, you toss it out there just to see who bites” and “I try to love you but you won’t let me in. You say it’s ending before it can begin. You tell me to stay and then you tell me to go. You’re a hard one to know”. Both of these songs, although definitely lacking some specifics as well, are some of the best on the album.
The melody on ‘Dream Song’ is an easy four chord strumming progression and because of this simple style, it sticks with you. When the lyrics do drop away, he fills in the space with some airy “ohhhh”s which make for a nice break in this calm anthem. The real gem has got to be “Bigger Than Love” which features Aimee Mann singing with Gibbard and the two sound great together. Lyrically, Gibbard and Mann sing “It’s bigger than love, brighter than all the stars combined, dwarfing the sun, burning within my heart and mind”. Thematically, it’s a beautifully composed biography written about the life of the Fitzgerald’s romance ̶ one that has become bigger than love and instead one of legends.
Benjamin Gibbard has made a very solid album. This release does not mark an end to Death Cab For Cutie though. He has assured his fans that they are still going to create more music and that this was just his own creation. We can expect a lot of good things to come our way from Gibbard in the future.