Most discussions of Ben Gibbard’s debut solo album Former Lives, which came out on October 16th of this year, have focused on the turmoil of his personal life (due to a quite public split from actress Zooey Deschanel in 2011) and analyzed the album through the lens of The Postal Service (Gibbard’s side project the early 2000’s) and Death Cab For Cutie. Thus, Former Lives had to live up to an incredibly tall order before it even hit listeners’ speakers, and so it’s no surprise it’s experienced mixed reviews.
That said, Gibbard’s done quite a smart thing by choosing to present this work in a solo context, mixed in with Death Cab For Cutie and Postal Service favorites. This stripped down approach forces the listener to focus on the lyrics and pleasant folk-pop chord progressions of the songs, and in a way by going solo he also levels the playing field. A song like “Cath…” is just as adorned as newcomer “Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke),” and fortunately this format benefitted the new work greatly, but it also occasionally diminished the impact of certain Death Cab selections.
Opening with the a cappella first track from Former Lives, “Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby,” Gibbard quieted the audience enough so that when he launched into “Such Great Heights,” many were timid to applause and recognize the song. This hushed atmosphere continued until a brilliant take on “Title and Registration,” which sounded exquisite in the lush Palace of Fine Arts hall. It had a level of maturity and well-worn sound that transformed it from the melancholy early single that debuted in 2003. It’s evident that Gibbard has explored the realm of this song to so many of its extents, but hearing it solo was quite revelatory.
On the record, the new songs from Former Lives are quite erratic in style and quality, and while the solo format helped the acoustic foundations of the tracks come through, it also exposed many areas of weak lyricism and poor editing. “Lady Adelaide” has a charming finger-picked guitar line, but the words come across as a sophomoric investigation into alienating love. So, taken next to something like “Cath…” it just pales in comparison.
That’s not to say all of the Death Cab For Cutie songs came off perfectly. Gibbard’s always had an attractive voice, but not one that is technically perfect or polished, and his inability to sustain notes, especially in a higher register, because hugely apparent in “Soul Meets Body.” Thankfully, though, there are few moments like that, and in general his voice was pleasing and endearing.
Criticisms aside, Gibbard gave quite a fantastic show. He was humorous and engaging with the audience when they would shout out comments or requests, which provided the right amount of pacing for the show. Also, some of the solo takes on his work, both new and old, were downright revelatory. “Duncan, Where Have You Gone?” was breathtaking, “Grapevine Fires” was seductive and devastating, “Crooked Teeth” was buoyant in just the right places and a piano take on “Unobstructed Views” showed the strength and intensity of the often overlooked track from last year’s Codes and Keys. Also, the closing pieces for the main set (“The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”) and the encore (“I Will Follow You Into The Dark”) spawned sing-a-longs (even though somewhat restrained), and showed Gibbard’s ability at writing genre and generation-defining indie folk/rock.
While this concert revealed the inconsistent quality of his recent solo work, and also exposed just how central Death Cab For Cutie’s instrumentation is to the power of their songs, Ben Gibbard put on a thoroughly enjoyable and downright exquisite performance. It’s clear he feels secure performing solo, and has really spent the time to live in these songs, and that intimacy and introspection comes through. Despite all the talk swirling around this tour and album, it was gratifying to have a reminder that Ben Gibbard does exactly what he purports to do quite well, and is definitely worth going and seeing in any incarnation of his live show.
Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby
Such Great Heights
Title and Registration
When The Sun Goes Down On Your Street
These Roads Don’t Move
(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan
Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke)
You Can Do Better Than Me
Duncan, Where Have You Gone?
Blacking Out The Friction
San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)
The District Sleeps Alone Tonight
Soul Meets Body
A Hard One To Know
I Will Follow You Into The Dark