Ben Gibbard is to Death Cab for Cutie as the brain and spinal cord are to the body’s central nervous system. The band, which made the journey from indie favorite to rock-radio staple over the course of four years, would simply cease to exist without the coordinative efforts of their formative frontman. In fact, Death Cab for Cutie was initially a solo project that over time grew into a full-fledged band. Gibbard previously recorded stag under the ¡All-Time Quarterback! handle, but until now has never released a proper solo album. If the often off-puttingly idiosyncratic, tonally featherweight Former Lives is any indication, Gibbard is at his best when he’s in the studio with his Death Cab colleagues Chris Walla, Nick Harmer, and Jason McGerr, benefiting from the emotional support and sonic depth they add to his gossamer arrangements and moody lyricism.
That’s not to say Former Lives is a depressingly lonely undertaking, but it is, perhaps, an album tailored to be listened to alone. Take, for example, the delicate opener “Shepard’s Bush Lullaby,” with its complete absence of a backing track; it’s essentially Gibbard’s airy voice dancing with itself, his circulating “ba-ba-bum” harmonies winding around behind romantic lines like, “I walk in this gray afternoon/And under my umbrella, I sing a cappella, this melancholy, whimsical tune.” There are several passages like this throughout the album, but their ultimate value is diminished by songs that lack Gibbard’s signature boyish charm and frequently hop to and from dissimilar genres without warning. To go from the wonderfully balanced “Bigger Than Love,” a tender marriage-themed duet with Aimee Mann, to the rambling, unexcited blend of low country hums and mariachi strums of “Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke)” is akin to jumping into a freezing cold swimming pool after sweating it out in a steamy sauna.
What’s most frustrating about Former Lives is that for every single shining moment there are two or three that subsequently fall flat. There’s the catchy “Teardrop Windows,” a sweet yet doleful tribute to Seattle’s Smith Tower, but then there’s the yawn-worthy “Lily,” a showy bit of puff doggerel that finds Gibbard resorting to Plain White T’s-like levels of unimaginative pandering. The early Beatles-style ballad “Duncan, Where Have You Gone?,” perhaps the album’s creative climax, is quickly offset by the spotty “Oh, Woe” and the bland “A Hard One to Know,” which unwisely stonewalls its audience by leaving out the specifics of Gibbard’s relationship situation, opting for style over substance at every turn: “When I start thinking about what you do to me/You’re like a flower garden buried in snow/You’re a hard one to know.”
Sure, it’s all very pretty, but none of it means much in context because Gibbard refuses to get as personal as he’s been in the past. This is unfortunate, as his 2011 divorce from Zooey Deschanel obviously fans the flames on the aforementioned highlight “Bigger Than Love.” It’s a shame that the passion heard on that particular track can’t seem to fully absorb into the remainder of this ephemeral album, which, ironically, seems to sum up its own shortcomings with its slow-burn closing number, “I’m Building a Fire”: “I’m building a fire, to keep you warm long after I retire/‘Cause this body is bound to expire tonight, tonight…” And expire it does, but not after supplying some welcoming but too-brief warmth.