Other cities, other plans; different friends, different dreams; former loves, former lives. After fifteen years in Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard didn’t make his first solo album in search of a new beginning; instead, it closes a door. “These songs span eight years, three relationships, living in two different places, drinking then not drinking” he says of the dozen tracks that comprise Former Lives . “They’re a side story, not a new chapter.”
Still, what we keep for ourselves is often just as interesting as what we choose to share. Former Lives is a gorgeous shadow anthology, the exuberant sound of one of our best songwriters finding his voice by experimenting with those of others. “In Death Cab, we’ve always been very specific,” Ben explains. “We record for the album and then maybe two or three more.” But fresh ideas and new experiences don’t stop during the weeks and months between the studio and the tour bus; life rarely follows a neatly organized itinerary. “When I’m home between records my only job is writing songs,” Ben says. “So when I get up in the morning, what else am I gonna do?” Over time, stray ideas – some fully-formed, others just flecks of melody – filled notebooks and hard drives but as Death Cab songs they never quite, in Ben’s words, “fit into the whole.”
It took a dramatic change of scenery for their author to realize these square pegs could do just fine on their own, when, a couple of years back, Ben found himself in Southern California, living away from his native Seattle for the first time and making a go of it in a city he famously mocked back on 2000’s The Photo Album. But instead of sunshine and celebrity, he discovered a fountain of inspiration. “All the musicians I knew in Los Angeles were constantly making things, always working and doing something interesting. That really lit a fire under me,” he says. “And at the same time I was disappearing into the vastness of the city. It surprised me, but there was really something very comforting about falling away into such a huge place.” The castaway songs (and pieces of songs) that had been “floating” for years seemed suddenly like the perfect paint for this wonderfully disconcerting new canvas. In between fruitful sessions with Death Cab for what would eventually become 2011’s Codes & Keys, Ben holed up with longtime pal Aaron Espinoza (Earlimart) in the City of Angels, reveling in the freedom of solo recording, enjoying both the careful process of turning what had seemed like disparate material into a cogent album of songs and the spontaneity, as Ben puts it, to say things like “fuck it, let’s get a Mariachi band.” And then to do exactly that.
The horn-kissed song in question is “Something's Rattling (Cowpoke),” and in many ways it’s the centerpiece of Former Lives. Built around the bones of an old cowboy yodel called “Cowpoke,” it’s a winking and warming ode to leaning into the slide. “I’m not in hiding, just trying not to be found,” Ben sings as the aforementioned Mariachis – an all-female ensemble called Trio Ellas – form a transporting circle around him. Says Ben: “What better way to present a song about getting lost than having me getting lost in an unrecognizable band?”
This wandering spirit infects many of the best tracks here, as Ben jumps from style to style and voice to voice. “I think people would be surprised when these songs were written or who they were written for,” he adds. “They’re snapshots from my life, a little photo book from different times.” So Former Lives begins with “Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby,” a whimsical a cappella doodle recorded on an iPhone between London raindrops and then bounces to the more straightforward strumminess of “Dream Song” and “Teardrop Windows.” The latter, about Seattle’s Smith Tower, began as an unabashed attempt to, in Ben’s words, “write a Big Star inspired song,” but quickly morphed into something else entirely. The Smith, built in 1914, was once the jewel of the Seattle skyline but has since been forced out of the frame by the iconic Space Needle and other taller or otherwise attention-grabbing structures. “To me, it represents the things we take for granted when something newer, bigger and flashier comes into our lives,” Ben explains. “We tend to forget the beautiful things we already have.” While recent Death Cab albums have pushed the band’s sound forward, these songs very intentionally flirt with the past, from the gently plucked sonnet “Lily,” to the sumptuously downcast “Duncan, Where Have You Gone?” (“That’s a song I wrote years ago,” Ben recalls, “and it’s the aggregate of the sum of its influences more than anything. I was listening to a lot of Bill Fay and Teenage Fanclub, those descending chords and harmonies that fall together. It’s pop music blues: the form is similar but it’s more about how you express it.”)
The catalyst for “Bigger Than Love,” a dizzying and lovely duet with Aimee Mann, came from another, older source. “I’ve been somewhat obsessed with this book of letters sent by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald,” Ben says. The he said/she said song builds like bubbles in a glass of champagne, from the couple’s lost years in Paris to the dissolution of their marriage, health and sanity. Despite the Hollywood hangover, the doomed love story never loses its kernel of optimism thanks to the vibrancy of the voices narrating it. “I’ve been friends with Aimee for five years,” Ben says. “She’s so funny and warm and wonderful. Plus, it turned out that before he started his studio, Aaron Espinoza had tiled her bathroom!” (According to Ms. Mann, he did a “great” job.)
Former Lives is a brisk, occasionally breezy record, but the shadow of time hangs heavily over it, from the “basement of a year” on “Oh, Woe” to the fading beauty “Lady Adelaide”. The decade-long gestation of the album has seen Ben’s songwriting deepen and mature in remarkable ways, but so too has his connection with the material and his own muse. “Every song I’ve ever written, my relationship to it has changed over the years,” he says. “That’s not meant to be cagey, it’s the absolute truth. With these songs, there’s going to be a lot of time between when they were written and when people are finally going to hear them.” “Broken Yolk In Western Sky,” is the oldest of the tracks on the album; it’s been a staple of Ben’s solo acoustic shows since 2004. But reimagined here with the help of Mark Spencer’s yearning pedal steel and the canny, intuitive drumming of Superchunk’s Jon Wurster, its tale of roadside heartbreak and renewal sounds more alive than ever. Former Lives isn’t about wallowing in the past or disappearing into it; it’s about letting yesterday go.
“Creatively, I’m really cleaning slate,” Ben says. “I’m doubtful I’ll have another solo album for another ten years because the health of Death Cab for Cutie has never been better. It’s exciting because for the first time in a long while, I’m starting from scratch as a songwriter – there’s no backlog of material to pilfer ideas from. It’s freeing and terrifying.” He pauses. “But mostly freeing!”