The success that Benjamin “Ben” Gibbard and Death Cab For Cutie have accrued over the years might have once seemed improbable during the band’s earnest beginnings, but it didn’t happen by accident. 2005’s Plans launched the little Seattle band that could into the stratosphere, and subsequent records 2008’s Narrow Stairs and 2011’s Codes and Keys kept the momentum generated by the band’s heart-on-sleeve indie pop going.
Gibbard knows he has a good thing going for him, and after more than 15 years in the indie trenches, he knows how to play to his strengths. On his first proper solo album, Former Lives, Gibbard once again showcases the nuanced, nice-guy indie rock that has made him a central figure of the genre’s new wave. His tepid, sweet vocal delivery is intact, while musically the album continues to chip away at the pleasantly emotive indie pop the singer has long made his bread and butter. He might be going it alone this time out, but fans should be pleased to find he hasn’t strayed too far from home.
That said, Gibbard isn’t tied to the porch, either. The album reaches ever so slightly beyond the confines of Death Cab’s comfort zone, and it’s careful not to stumble and fall in doing so. Former Lives hits on varying genres including Latin, alt-country, and straightforward indie and pop rock, and while not everything kills, the variety keeps things lively. Ultimately, it’s a successful balancing act, one where Gibbard threads his expanded sonic repertoire through Death Cab’s cozy sounds while at the same time exhibiting a little bit of songwriting growth.
Early on, Gibbard sets fans up for a fall, leading them down a trail of decidedly Death Cab-sounding tunes. The bouncy bassline and stomping drumbeat on “Dream Song” underpin a light acoustic guitar sound that helps the song live up to its name. Elsewhere, “Teardrop Windows” has the countrified jangle pop of a Jayhawks outtake, and “Bigger Than Love” does big, evocative indie pop as good as anything Gibbard’s ever done.
But before listeners can settle in for Transatlanticism part deux, the album throws some curves. Take the mariachi horns, shuffling maracas, and what appears to be Gibbard’s best attempt at a female background vocal on “Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke)”, or the Johnny Marr-like guitar jangle on “A Hard One To Know”. There’s also the ’70s pop feel on “Duncan, Where Have You Gone?”, complete with harmonized vocals, splashy cymbals, and mid-tempo piano, and “Broken Yolk in Western Sky”, which finds Gibbard drifting off into dusty country territory.
Fans have come to expect quite a bit from Seattle’s favorite sensitive everyman, which immediately gave Former Lives plenty to live up to. And while the record doesn’t completely clear the bar, all things considered, it doesn’t fall too far short. Some of Gibbard’s genre exercises work better than others, but it’s fun to see the songwriter try his hand at new things, even if for the most part they only constitute subtle tweaks in the formula.
Essential Tracks: “Teardrop Windows”, “A Hard One To Know”