REVIEW: Ben Gibbard – Former Lives

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Artist: Ben Gibbard
Album: Former Lives
Label: Barsuck

I always thought of Death Cab For Cutie as a Ben Gibbard experience. It made me wonder why he would ever need a solo album – so much of Death Cab is just one man, and so much of it is clearly just written by one guy and orchestrated by a full band; why would a solo album be necessary for the glasses wearing emo man? But then, this is album is surprisingly different than Death Cab For Cutie; it is clearly a solo album in style and songwriting, and that took me aback. But it’s not without its flaws.

Former Livesis way more poppy than I expected – and that’s not a bad thing, per se. Some of the bass work eerily resembles the playing of Paul McCartney, and a lot of the melodies seem to be enchanting some ghost of the Beatles songwriting. Unfortunately, it’s not as amazing as the Beatles, but it’s overall a pretty great sound and something that I didn’t see coming. Most all of this could have been released in 1969 and fit right in.

It’s not without its mediocre filler songs, too, and when it’s mediocre, it’s very mediocre. There are songs on here I will be skipping every time it would come up on shuffle. But there’s also some songs where the guitar playing is sneakier than I would’ve expected, and the dated sound with a modern voice and playing has this timeless quality to it that makes it worth listening to again and again.

It also has its folk melodies and some folk instrumentation, but on those tracks, it’s the Ben Gibbard solo album I expected. Not a bad thing, per se, but it’s just more of a “ah, more of this” than “whoa, what is this?” vibe. I would say about half the tracks are a low-calorie Beatles imitation, a quarter are plain songs in the style you would expect a solo album, and a quarter are successful solo songs that captivate me. Because of that, the album has its own flavor, and it tastes pretty good; it’s just not the best taste I’ve ever had from the Ben Gibbard restaurant.

Lyrically, everything seems from the heart, but too often the music comes from a place of Ben Gibbard going “hey, what if I tried that? Wouldn’t that be kinda fun? Right? It’s 1971, right?” Maybe I’m just bitter, but I really don’t think so. This album is really good. It’s just not great. There are some beautiful shining moments on this album (the final track, “I’m Building a Fire”, stands out as one of the best songs he’s ever written in any context to me, and “Dream Song” is a heartfelt tragedy in itself), but there are just as many times where you’ll sit there and go “what else can we listen to?” Considering the album’s short length – a dozen songs in under forty minutes – you would just hope that all the music was consistently strong, and it isn’t.

Rating: 7.0/10

Review by: Dan Bogosian

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  • popa-t

    You seem to have really missed the point re sounds a bit like, just about the only band that isn’t respectfully pastiched on this album is the Beatles, if you listen to it again after listening to The Cascades; Rhythm of the falling rain, The Byrds; Power of the rain, Carpenters; Calling occupants, Gram Parsons, The Kinks, The Clash, Bobby Darin, The Smiths and Joy Division just for starters you will see clearly that this album is a heart felt retrospective homage to all of the music he grew up with or from his “Former lives” honestly check them out!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=9033002 Dan Bogosian

    I can see all of those comparisons except for the Smiths and Joy Division. What song(s) do you think are so new wave? I listened to it x3 before reviewing and have probably listened x2 or3 since and I don’t know what you’d be referring to (particularly with the Joy Division one.) Sincere, not condescending question. :)