Ben Gibbard’s lyrics for Death Cab For Cutie are often real-time struggles with angst-inducing mental detritus, or meditations on either fresh heartbreak or romantic bliss. As its name implies, though, Gibbard’s solo album Former Lives (his first full-length record under his own name) isn’t focused on his present mindset. Instead, it’s an absorbing chronicle of the emotional ebbs and flows of his back pages.
Recorded partly with Earlimart’s Aaron Espinoza, Former Lives is a collection of songs Gibbard stockpiled over eight years, a time period that encapsulated “three relationships, living in two different places, drinking then not drinking,” as he writes in the album’s bio. The album is wildly varied as a result; the music touches on everything from silly a cappella (the fanciful, nursery-rhyme-like “Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby”) and mariachi-flavored folk-rock (“Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke),” which features the Trio Ellas) to a ’70s AM Gold homage (“Duncan, Where Have You Gone?”). Gibbard performed the bulk of Former Lives by himself, although several guests make welcome contributions: Drummer Jon Wurster and bassist/lap steel player Mark Spencer provide subtle color on the tropical acoustic-pop of “Lady Adelaide” and twangy lope “Broken Yolk In Western Sky,” while the jangly highlight “Bigger Than Love” is a duet with Aimee Mann that’s inspired by the letters of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
As the latter song implies, Former Lives‘ songwriting is often character-driven. The fiery woman described in “Lily” inspires passionate love, while the broken, aging “Lady Adelaide” is plagued by loneliness and regret. But the album also finds creative new avenues to address Gibbard’s familiar themes of melancholy and heartbreak. The jangly, R.E.M.-esque “Teardrop Windows” is written from the lonely perspective of Seattle’s Smith Tower – once the focal point of the city’s skyline, it’s now dwarfed by other skyscrapers – and “Oh, Woe” personifies the feeling of despair in a whimsical, Shel Silverstein way (“Oh, woe please hear this plea/ To walk away and leave me be”).
Despite this diversity, Former Lives is remarkably cohesive, thanks to its meticulous sequencing; the album organizes its textural quirks in a logical way, so there are no lulls in tempo, styles or subject matter. Thanks to the sentimental (but not overly nostalgic) atmosphere of the record, and the quality of the songwriting, Former Lives transcends “tossed-off solo project” status.