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ATP! Album Review: Benjamin Gibbard - Former Lives

The early release online of Benjamin Gibbard's new album has led to a bit of disappointment for some. Reviews were decent (aside from SPIN's passive-aggressive commentary), but it seems the expectation for Gibbard to live up to the holiness reached from The Postal Service and Death Cab's "Transatlanticism" fell hard on his solo release. He has also been the butt of a few jokes for insisting we start calling him 'Benjamin'...But going through heartache isn't supposed to turn you into a modest genius. You don't go through heartache to write a solo record, you write a solo record because you're going through heartache. And whether or not the record was intended for Benjamin to reach a new level of sophistication with his music or not, it's worth the over-analysis of his psyche revealed in these songs.

Many of the songs are quick – less than two minutes – perhaps quickly written off and recorded just to get it out. The fifty-second intro of 'Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby' knocks off a jolly, cloudy London a capella while overseas from a lover. But 'Dream Song' quickly assures the album doesn’t stay as optimistic.

For the majority of "Former Lives", Gibbard spins stories and fables through the metaphors and lessons learned of someone else. 'Dream Song' is the tale of an insomniac and his nightmares, one of which involves getting chased by all of his ex-lovers. Chord progressions are pretty predictable, as is Gibbard’s strategy of explaining psychological issues through poems. The electric guitar in 'Teardrop Windows' is played as an acoustic, pulled heavily through an amp and entirely reminiscent of "Codes And Keys"'Monday Morning'. It’s another third-person narrative of a man, and we start to get the idea that Gibbard might be trying to detach himself from what’s going on around him; placing his troubles on other semi-fictional characters, because it’s easier to empathize with another than feel it for yourself. But in 'Bigger Than Love' he’s not alone, bracing the first first-person song with Aimee Mann (whose rustic, masculine voice is perfect for a lovesong duet) covering lovers’ quarrels, old lives, California and the time that passes. They all meet for a pause, and then an uproar of a stomping that marches the song along.

Obviously 'Lily' wasn’t written for creative reasons as the cousin to 'I Will Follow You Into The Dark', but again we’re served another story of someone else Gibbard loves through his uncannily innocence. But finally, 'Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke)' has Gibbard step out on his own to talk about himself, albeit cautiously. He’s essentially trying not to exist, to disappear “into the grid” like the others, to stay anonymous in the southern town. Yet another song dedicated to someone else (Gibbard can’t really be this unselfish, can he?), 'Duncan, Where Have You Gone?' could easily be one of the shadow people who fell of the grid from the song before. This is a Lennon tune – a bit vintage, a bit British. All this talk of disappearing continues with 'Oh, Woe' (“The people you meet / they just see someone else / your biggest dream is to be just a stranger you pass on the street") in another lone ranger-esque song, and there’s no denying Gibbard’s feeling something here. There are brief moments in the album where Gibbard really is recounting his past, essentially living a lot of moments. 'A Hard One To Know' is the first pure instance of this, where he observes the back-and-forth of a relationship with someone whose difficult to read, the bipolarity of a girl you love and the insomnia she gives you (maybe Gibbard has something in common with the guy from 'Dream Song').

The soft, Pacific acoustic and shaker of 'Lady Adelaide' tells the tale of a cold, heartless Lady who was never loved. She tried, had her heart broken and never tried again. Her song is told with incredible simplicity and detatchment, but 'Broken Yolk In Western Sky' is another harsh force back to Gibbard’s past. With a name more suited for a painting, the song is a snapshot of the day of a break-up and the insurmountable anxiety it gave, but it’s also a look back at what Gibbard did wrong instead dedicating a soapbox song to blaming the girl.

Finally, 'I’m Building A Fire' is a retraction of the bitterness heard so much before. As another living room acoustic about death, Gibbard’s vocals are stronger than usual, and we’re given the most important lesson of the entire album: “The night is only a temporary absence of light.” To write so many songs about someone else isn’t really out of character for Gibbard (think 'Cath' or 'Death of an Interior Decorator'), but whoever these songs are about, there’s a reason the album was made. It’s the Gibbard Crisis Record, nine years after the creative side-project The Postal Service, without a need to put effort into separating from the sound of Death Cab For Cutie. It’s not the most groundbreaking or revolutionary record, but it serves a purpose, and there’s not really much more you can ask for than that.


Carolyn Vallejo

"Former Lives" is out now through Barsuk Records.

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