Thursday, 8 November 2012

Benjamin Gibbard - Former Lives

Former Lives - Benjamin Gibbard
You can't always spend eight years on an album, but that's what Benjamin Gibbard did with Former Lives, his debut solo release.

You may know Benjamin better from Death Cab for Cutie - but Former Lives is an opportunity for an intimate glimpse into some of the landmark moments of his life from recent years.

"These songs span eight years, three relationships, living in two different places, drinking then not drinking," he explains. "They're a side-story, not a new chapter."

However, they're also more than just a release of pent-up angst - and while some of the music and lyrics are admittedly simplistic, I don't see that as anything of a problem.

Some of the greatest love songs ever written are equally free from complexity, and there's definitely nothing 'basic' about Former Lives.

Instead, this is an album with a charming honesty to it, lacking in the commercial cynicism that you may have become accustomed to.

Gibbard is both a storyteller, and the subject of these stories - making for a uniquely tangible character to this solo debut that you're unlikely to find in much of the album chart.

Something's Rattling (Cowpoke)

Something's Rattling (Cowpoke) is track six on Former Lives, and as a slightly more upbeat song than those which precede it, it's a sit-up-and-listen kind of a track.

It's more mariachi than Mumford & Sons, but there's nothing wrong with that. Storytelling lyrics and strong characterisation make a movie inside your head, with Something's Rattling (Cowpoke) as the perfect soundtrack.

This feels like one of those songs that's as much fun to perform as to listen to - and while it's far from lighthearted, it's something of a relief from the more emotionally charged parts of the album, so enjoy it while it lasts.

Duncan, Where Have You Gone?

A definite tempo switch from Something's Rattling (Cowpoke), the immediate next track, Duncan, Where Have You Gone?, opens with soaring vocals and a Beatles-like backing.

It gets better the longer you listen to it - a lament for times past, but without becoming self-indulgent - and I can easily imagine cranking the volume on this one in the car while driving home for Christmas.

An Oasis-style electric guitar interlude puts a 21st-century stamp on what could otherwise be a great track from any of the past five or six decades, and there's an understated but definite end to the song too, avoiding the rarely ideal 'solution' of a slow fade to silence.

Mix Tape Potential

OK, showing my age there slightly, but I just can't bring myself to discuss 'iPod playlist potential'. And they're two different things, anyway.

Former Lives has mix tape potential in bucketloads - partly because so many of its songs are personal and more than a little wistful.

If your high-school sweetheart has headed off to a university 200 miles away, MAKE THEM A TAPE and bung some Former Lives on it, just to remind them that you care.

"It's bigger than love
Brighter than all the stars combined
Dwarfing the sun
And burning within my heart and mind."
- Bigger Than Love

There are tracks for missing people, tracks for remembering the good times, tracks for saying "I love you - and I always will" and tracks for pretty much any other mix tape purpose you could think of, even just among these dozen songs.

There's even a "Pet Shop Boys singing country and western" track, in the form of Broken Yolk in Western Sky. It doesn't get much better than that, surely?


For every perceived weakness in this album, there's a corresponding strength.

Does Former Lives benefit from the resurgence in country and folk music in recent years? Probably - but it could also be that Gibbard wrote these tracks from a vantage point within that developing trend.

Does the eight-year timeframe of this album lead to some fairly distinctive contrasts between songs that neighbour one another on the playlist? Certainly - but is a little variety necessarily a bad thing?

As usual, I'll leave it to you to answer that question, as it's all a matter of taste. Personally, I'd say I have my favourite tracks, and a few not-so-favourites, but there are none that I'd skip if listening to the album in full, and that's not half bad by my standards.

Former Lives - Benjamin Gibbard

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