When first single "Teardrop Windows" arrived, it neither confirmed nor denied the perception. Gibbard didn't write a song reveling in his own angst; instead, its pseudo-country strums and Beatlesy pop was in service of a character portrait of an aging Seattle skyscraper. Yet, peering into the windows of the half-abandoned building, Gibbard seemed to see his own reflection: the building left sad and lonely, all by itself, unloved and empty.
Yet, the album itself is not the breakup album many were expecting. Neither is it anything so singular of theme; or, more notable of sad. There's little coherence to Former Lives, an album whose pluralized title suggests that many incarnations of Gibbard that penned these tunes. This isn't a single creative burst from one time, but a collection spanning years.
The Scrapbook Album
Rather than being about a single breakup, Former Lives is a varied set of songs, addressing a varied set of subjects in a various range of styles. Its title suggests the past; and, one reading of it could be as a decade-on successor to The Photo Album, one of Death Cab's most Gibbard-centric albums, that came penned after traveling through Europe, and thus functioned as a suite of memories-in-song. Only, Former Lives is less photo album (or, indeed, slide show) and more scrapbook; gathering odd songs, offcuts, and leftovers, and gluing them together, even if they stories don't quite match, and the edges can be frayed and torn.
What's most surprising about it is that it's not particularly personal at all. Gibbard may have his own name on the front —and be assuming the psychic and emotional burden that comes with— but Former Lives feels less intimate, less revealing than your typical Death Cab for Cutie LP.
Which is not to say it lacks for revealing moments. "Oh Woe" is a fuzzed-out, foot-stompin' rocker whose lyrics actually refute the desire to write a breakup album; a tune written unto the eternal muse of melancholy ("you're nothing like the way you look/in all those famous songs and books") wishing only for it to be gone from his life. It's followed by the revealing relationship ode "Hard One to Know," in which Gibbard tries to puzzle out his enigmatic paramour. "You call a truce and then you start a fight/you change your signals like a traffic light," he begins, singing sentiments universal over bouncy indie-rock. "I try to love you but you won't let me in/you say it's ending before it can begin."
Yet any attempt to extract any central theme —be it heartache or not— is stymied by the cobbled-together nature of the songs; a set of character sketches filled with proper names and endless similes and metaphors. Whilst 'Beatles-esque' could describe much of the record, there's a stylistic whimsy to proceedings, too; Gibbard using the freedom of a solo album to just try stuff out. That makes for the album's downfall whilst also providing its mild pleasures.
Hearing Gibbard on leave from his (sometimes depressing) Death Cab dayjob, wandering through Tex-Mex strums ("Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke)") and Hawaiian steel guitar ("Lady Adelaide") makes him sound like a musical tourist, and makes Past Lives, thus, a kind of holiday. On The Photo Album, the travel was literal, here it feels more imagined; Gibbard using genres as tickets to escapism, fleeing from woe's "basement" on flights of musical fantasy.
Record Label: Barsuk
Release Date: October 16, 2012