Taking poetic lyrics full of imagery seems to be a Death Cab for Cutie hallmark. On his first solo venture since 2009, lyricist and lead singer Ben Gibbard continues these motifs exceedingly and although many of the songs have pleasant sounds, “Former Lives” is oozing with dark bitterness. Gibbard, who recently divorced actress Zooey Deschanel, said in an interview that the songs on the album span eight years, three relationships and two cities.
Musically, the album varies from a capella to jangly indie-rock and mariachi to simple acoustics. Surprisingly, the album flows smoothly from one to the other. It begins with the aforementioned acapella track, “Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby.” The song proves Gibbard still has some notions of good romance as he sings a faraway lover to sleep.
Songs like “Dream Song,” and “Duncan, Where Have You Gone,” truly portray a sense of helplessness from Gibbard. In “Dream Song,” lines like, “The cameras photograph everything / That he’s burying down beneath / And show him what he don’t want to see” provide a sense of restlessness as they combine with an upbeat tune. In “Duncan, Where Have You Gone,” soaring harmonies add to an otherwise melancholy tone as Gibbard croons about a man who has simply given up hope, whose “biggest dream is to just be a stranger, passed on the street.” A Beatles-esque vibe is readily apparent, especially in the guitar solo.
Serving as the transition track into the relatively softer side of “Former Lives,” “Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke),” is the most folk-driven song on the album, while soft mariachi horns add to its charm. In this faraway place, Gibbard is able to “live out in the open, perfectly hid,” away from everything that stresses him.
The album closes with two strong tracks, the country-tinged “Broken Yolk in a Western Sky,” in which Gibbard finally accepts more responsibility for a bad relationship, and the haunting, lo-fi acoustic ballad, “I’m Building a Fire,” in which Gibbard reminds his lover how to remember him and still be happy after he’s passed away.
“Former Lives” very effectively portrays a sense of the ups and downs of love with bitter sentiment at what could have been, be it through anger, sadness or hope. Through stylistic differences and angry, heart-wrenching lyrics, Gibbard seems to have been through it all. To put it in his own words, “It’s been a basement of a year / And all I want is for you to disappear.”