Benjamin Gibbard – Former Lives

I’ll probably repeat myself many, many times over the course of my reviews when it comes to one topic that puzzles me – the term “hipster”. What does it mean? What does it denote? I’m still not certain, even after reading about how I live in the hipster capital of the United States (Yes, Seattle beats out a few other cities I thought would be ahead of us). Death Cab for Cutie were considered an up and coming indie band up through 2003’s Transatlanticism. This, along with The Postal Service‘s Give Up (Benjamin Gibbard’s side project with Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello, also released in 2003) appears to have been the peak of anything about Death Cab for Cutie appearing hip. From there, the band adopted mass acceptance which in turn turned the hipsters against them. I’ve liked or loved everything they’ve done though, and I approached the news of a solo Benjamin Gibbard album with curiosity – how would it differ from the band’s albums?

It is impossible to approach the album without knowing some of the stories that went into the making of the album. If you are reading this, you probably are aware that Gibbard recently divorced from Zooey Deschanel, William Miller’s fictional big sister. She’s also an accomplished musician in the duo She & Him as well as star of the hit TV series The New Girl. Read a little more about the album though, and you begin to realize that the album’s content spans over 8 years and a few relationships. I honestly had no expectations going into this record – I figured it’d be a nice diversion between Death Cab records. After listening to this non-stop since the day of release, I’d have to say – it’s one of my favorite records of the year.

I know where I want to be…(highlights)

The album starts out with the a cappella workout, Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby, an unassuming tune that sets the tone for the record. Features lyrics that reference the fact that he is singing this sans instrumentation – it shouldn’t work, but it does “In London it’s raining, but / I’m not complaining / As I walk in the gray afternoon  / And under my umbrella, I sing a cappella  / This melancholy whimsical tune”

Bigger Than Love feels like a Death Cab for Cutie song – perhaps more than any other track on this album. Warm melody, a full band sound. Features Aimee Mann on guest vox. Impassioned singing, lyrics that the listener can relate to over a Beatles-ish tune. Perfection. A bit of darkness in the lyrics as he talks about living with his memories. A classic track. Key lyrics:

I live with my memories
The bustle and fervor of New York
We’re on 59th street
We quarreled and broke the bathroom door
‘Cause you were just drinking
Drinking til you could hardly see
Of how much I loved you
I couldn’t bring myself to leave

Lily – My favorite track on the record, for reasons too personal to detail here. Tell you what though, replace the word “Lily” with someone you means the world to you, and you’ll feel the same way. Acoustic based but extremely catchy. Gibbard’s voice conveying the proper amount of emotion with each verse. Metaphors that will make you smile and laugh with the way he describes this person who is / was so dear to him. Key lyrics:

Lily’s the Pacific Ocean
And I’m standing at her shores
Lily she is never-ending
There’s so much left in store

So all I want to do
Is tell her that my love is true
To tell her that my love is true

I’m Building a Fire – An acoustic lament, with the sigh of regret and hope coming across in each verse. A perfect conclusion to this stunning record. It encapsulates the larger themes of life, love, and loss into a little 2 minute 33 second tune. “The embers will grow and will remind you what you already know / That the night is only a temporary absence of light…”

I have to be honest, I could have broken down this record track by track – it really is that good. The sound of the record is different from your typical Death Cab for Cutie record – it has full band songs and acoustic laments just like Death Cab, but it also includes full on country diversions and songs that show a more 90’s indie rock influence (think East River Pipe). I love when a record surprises me with track after track of stunning quality. What is great about this record is that Ben Gibbard takes topics that are universal and makes them resonate with the listener on a very personal level. Well done.

Verdict: Destination Gibbard

For Fans of: East River Pipe, Death Cab for Cutie, Neil Young, The Beatles, Radiohead


01. “Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby”
02. “Dream Song”
03. “Teardrop Windows”
04. “Bigger Than Love”
05. “Lily”
06. “Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke)”
07. “Duncan, Where Have You Gone?”
08. “Oh, Woe”
09. “A Hard One to Know”
10. “Lady Adelaide”
11. “Broken Yolk in Western Sky”
12. “I’m Building a Fire”

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