It was a dark day in Hollywood when Zooey Deschanel and Ben Gibbard announced their divorce in December 2011. However, while gossip sites mourned the loss of an undeniably cute couple, I found the silver lining. A heartbroken Ben Gibbard could mean only one thing: a fabulous Death Cab for Cutie comeback. I expected him to translate the pain of his broken relationship into another musical masterpiece like Transatlanticism or Plans, with songs that build up slowly, wrench your insides into a knot and finally explode.
Much to the dismay of my 17-year-old self, however, I have come to a conclusion: Gibbard has been seeing a therapist. Former Lives, the first album Gibbard has released under his own name, didn’t punch me in the face with the sting of heartbreak. In fact, it’s kind of cheery. It’s a pop album from start to finish, and although I can appreciate a great pop song, I can’t help but wonder if Gibbard is selling himself short. If anyone is capable of producing pop music with substance, it would be him.
Former Lives maintains a comfortable familiarity while exploring a range of new musical territory, dabbling in the sounds of country, blues, Latin and even a little a cappella. His efforts are admirable, but not quite enough so to validate the album’s overzealous metaphors and predictable lyrics (e.g. “All I want to do is tell her that my love is true”). As ambitiously as Gibbard may have attempted to depart from his usual sound, the album’s gems are actually the ones that most remind me of early Death Cab. “Dream Song” and “A Hard One to Know” are head-bobbing sing-along songs that could easily be an extension of 2001’s The Photo Album. Maybe it’s the nostalgic side of me, but these tracks were at least comforting, if nothing else.
“Bigger Than Love” is the only song that reaches for something bigger than itself, but even so, it’s unable to grasp the transformative moment it seems to be looking for. Perhaps I was the one looking for something that wasn’t there, judging Former Lives by the standards that Gibbard set with his previous works. Or, maybe he’s just another frontman trying to separate himself from the sound he’s come to be associated with. That being said, Gibbard is the mastermind behind computer-pop project The Postal Service, with which he proved more than capable of going it alone.
Former Lives is a lovely album that’s easy to listen to. I can admit that it’s the daunting expectations of listeners like me that sabotage perfectly adequate music produced by more-than-adequate musicians. This time around, Mr. Gibbard, you’re just too good for your own good.
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