A Ben Gibbard solo album might not be completely redundant, but even though Former Lives is the first album branded with this indie singer/songwriter's given name, it's not his first solo endeavor. Gibbard operated solo for a while under the All-Time Quarterback! moniker and even Death Cab for Cutie grew out of his solo acoustic songs into a full-fledged band. This album gathers together 12 songs written over an eight-year period, and the spaced-out nature of the writing shows in how varied the songs are from one another stylistically. The album starts out with the remarkably coy "Shepherd's Bush Lullaby," 47 seconds of a cappella preciousness that goes so far as to include the lyric "Under my umbrella/I sing a cappella/This melancholy, whimsical tune," almost an admission of overt twee tendencies and false sincerity. It's a bad start, but quickly gives way to more digestible acoustic strums, slick '70s-style basslines, and character sketches of lovesick insomniacs on "Dream Song." Moments later there are the mariachi-themed Western flavors of "Something's Rattling (Cowpoke)" and pedal steel on the '90s alt-rock recall of "Broken Yolk in Western Sky." Aimee Mann shows up to grace "Bigger Than Love" with her smoky vocals, trading verses with Gibbard about nostalgia for lost chances in different big cities. It's one of the album's more dynamic moments, with a big, hooky chorus and some legitimate tension during the verses. Former Lives is a staggered affair, with equal amounts of standout tracks and complete duds. While the soft rock pocket symphony of "Duncan, Where Have You Gone?" shines with multi-tracked vocals and a borrowed chord progression from any number of '60s AM radio soul-pop ballads, drab indie folk songs like "Lady Adelaide" and "Teardrop Windows" are so formulaic they end up sounding lifeless in their predictability. Even a would-be charger like the uptempo "A Hard One to Know" quickly fades into little more than pleasant background music. Gibbard's high-gloss songs are the definition of basic mainstream indie rock, and as much as the songs strive for disparate styles, they all end up taking on the same overall tone. With clean lines, sterile production, and songs steeped in vague themes of nostalgia, longing, and happy-go-lucky romance, Former Lives ends up sounding like a disingenuously constructed product in its worst moments. At its best it's cute and inoffensive singer/songwriter fare, the type of songs that makers of indie films post-Garden State (or perhaps more fittingly post-Postal Service) would dream of for their soundtracks. With all its clean-cut melodies and smirky introspection, even Death Cab fans might have a hard time finding Former Lives more than a collection of melancholy, whimsical tunes.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas