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Washington native and famed Death Cab For Cutie frontman Benjamin Gibbard ventured into the studio for his first full length solo album, Former Lives. Set to release on October 16th under Barsuk Records (Death Cab For Cutie, Maps & Atlases, Menomena). Former Lives is a 12-track collection of both songs that Gibbard has kept under wraps for years as well as others written just recently. Following the release of the album in mid-October, Gibbard will be hitting the road for a solo North American tour in support of the album. Gibbard will be swinging by the Somerville Theater on November 4th during the tour.
Gibbard told Stereogum that this collection of songs was not recorded in bad vein with Death Cab but instead he said, “I’m a songwriter and that’s my job, and with every record that we’ve made there would always be a couple of tunes that just didn’t seem to fit with the band.” Later Gibbard told Paste Magazine that some songs date back to 2004 and that he has been accumulating surplus unreleased material for years. Former Lives is Gibbard’s chance to really explore and examine his writing process as things have been drafted and edited numerous times over the years.
The album art for Former Lives is an abstract painting made up of mellowed hues of red, black, white, and a baby blue. The painting is by Joan Hiller who has worked with Laura Gibson and Dave Depper on cover art in the past.
Former Lives opens with “Shepard’s Bush Lullaby” an a capella love ballad that was recorded on an iPhone according to the liner notes. You’ve never heard Gibbard like this before as it sets a sweet and whimsical tone for the starting point of the album. The second track “Dream Song” has a steady tempo, melodic guitar and poignant vocals that let us sink right back into a Death Cab-vibe. The time-span in which the tracks featured on Former Lives were written is showcased as this track sounds like it came right off of You Can Play These Songs With Chords or Something About Airplanes – albums both released in the late ’90s.
Standout tracks on this album include “Lily,” “Oh, Woe,” and “A Hard One To Know.” What I love about Gibbard’s songwriting it that he has the ability to write melancholy lyrics and pair them with an upbeat and youthful tempo that create a balance. The Gibbard trademark: a sorrow filled song that makes the listener still feel like everything is –and will be- okay. Many of the lyrics on Former Lives revolve around love and loss thereof, which shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Featured artists and musicians on Former Lives include Nelly Cortez on guitarron, Stephanie Amaro on guitar, Suemy Conzalez on violin, and Zooey Deshanel on guest vocals. In the middle of the album, you might run into the same double-take I did on “Bigger Than Love” when the first set of vocals make you wonder whether the voice you’re hearing is Gibbard with an androgynous twist or if it is in fact a woman. It is in fact a guest, Aimee Mann, providing secondary vocals for this track.
Former Lives goes out on a similar note that it began on. While not fully a cappella, the last track, “I’m Building a Fire” is a slowed down ballad of hope and renewal. Gibbard is an artist that can recognize sorrow, grief, and heartache but at the same time know that, “the night is only a temporary absence of light.” To any long-time Gibbard follower, Former Lives is a seamless new addition to the collection. Former Lives is a time capsule of tracks that Gibbard held on to until they were ready – and ripe they are.