There was a time when Benjamin Gibbard seemed poised to become the great metaphysical poet of indie rock. Following up on the free-floating imagery and impressionistic relationship drama on early Death Cab for Cutie releases, he’d found a way to focus his ingenious metaphors into extended conceits, from winter-chilled teeth clicking out a Morse code message of self-reflection (“I Was a Kaleidoscope”) to a glove compartment’s unintended role as a memory repository (“Title And Registration”). Where John Donne once proposed bridging the distance between lovers through figurative thin expanses of gold and twin compasses, Gibbard wished that “The world was flat like the old days / So I could travel just by folding a map.” When the singer wasn’t fitting wild synecdoches and analogies to his recurring pet topics – travel, dislocation, and, of course, love – he was flexing his creative writing workshop muscles on story and character, like on the bitter inner monologue “Styrofoam Plates”. For an indie songwriter with such a relatively narrow focus on the mundane, Gibbard was downright high-concept in his execution.
Considering that some of the songs on Former Lives were written as long as eight years ago and the liner notes dedicate the album “to all of my former lives,” this debut solo release is light on the old Gibbard who knew that the shortest path to the heart of the matter requires unexpected turns. But when that guy shows up, even over music that’s far simpler than most of Gibbard’s group work, it’s hard not to get nostalgic for the days when he would define the limits of a dying relationship using a visitor badge and borrowed apartment keys (on the Postal Service’s “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”). Over the past decade, those lyrical stunts have gradually given way to a style that favors less detail, fewer surprises. The move from elaboration to concision is a familiar evolution that some songwriters and critics alike take for “maturity”, but it seldom pays off in thrills. The less-is-more Bruce Springsteen of the past three decades may inspire respect, but wouldn’t you rather hear a story from the wordy boardwalk poet of the early ’70s?
If bringing up Springsteen seems way off topic in a Benjamin Gibbard review, consider that one of the best songs on Former Lives, “Broken Yolk in Western Sky”, augments its open road imagery with a pedal steel lift of the harmonica riff to “The Promised Land”. This stab at country-tinged heartland rock would be an odd fit for a Death Cab album, but here, Gibbard is able to make the stylistic turn play off the lyrics. In effect, the type of music we associate with the mythic open highway – a departure for Gibbard – gives weight to Gibbard’s relationship-as-road trip riff: “And I threw myself out on the road / Torn flesh and broken bones / And in the shoulder’s patchy grass / I faded into your past.”
Another influence that crops up on “Broken Yolk in Western Sky” is underappreciated singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston, whose work once underwent a similar shift from lit-minded story-songs to vague, “mature” confessionals. Death Cab once covered his 1994 hit “Bad Reputation” and almost certainly had him in mind with the music to 2005’s “Crooked Teeth”, but Former Lives suggests that Gibbard has an ongoing affinity with his ’90s work. “Teardrop Windows”, the short, sweet lead single that bemoans the diminished reputation of Seattle’s Smith Tower in light of its taller neighbors, wouldn’t sound out of place on Johnston’s classic This Perfect World.
Unfortunately, most of Former Lives is in line with Gibbard’s recent work, complete with simplistic clichés like “All I want to do is tell her that my love is true” in a song about a girl who’s a “five alarm fire that rages inside my heart”. Former Lives also falls prey to typical solo album problems, like stylistic explorations that a band might correctly veto as ill-fitting throwaways (the mariachi-backed “Something’s Rattling [Cowpoke]” and the cutesy a cappella “Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby”) and songs too slight to appear on a major release (“Duncan, Where Have You Gone” and particularly the limp “Lady Adelaide”).
Yet songs like “Teardrop Windows,” “Broken Yolk in Western Sky,” and “Bigger Than Love”, an F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald-inspired duet with Aimee Mann hint at how good Former Lives could have been had Gibbard simply indulged his pop storyteller side. It’s on these songs that the distinctive, high-concept Benjamin (or “Ben”, as we used to call him) Gibbard of the past – the one who wouldn’t blink at spending a whole verse pontificating on a tear in a dress or, as it turns out, writing an entire song about a building’s hurt feelings – makes himself known.