By Mark Jenkins
Friday, November 2, 2012
For a musician who is widely associated with a particular band, making a solo album is a way to be more intimate with listeners. Yet that’s not what Death Cab for Cutie’s Benjamin Gibbard does on “Former Lives,” the first release credited to the Seattle singer-songwriter alone (although not his first without his regular group). If these 12 songs are mostly about love and loneliness, that doesn’t mean they’re autobiographical.
A prime example is “Teardrop Windows,” one of the most appealing numbers. A jaunty folk-rock lament with piano-guitar counterpoint that recalls the Kinks, the tune seems to be about a bereft person: “He’s been feeling oh so empty.” But Gibbard is actually grieving for the Smith Tower, a 1914 skyscraper that was the West Coast’s tallest building until the Space Needle opened in 1962, and now has “too many vacancies.”
Where Death Cab combines classic- and modern-rock styles, “Former Lives” is more conventional. The album was recorded in Los Angeles, as its sound and guests attest. Aimee Mann, who began her career just a few years after Gibbard was born, duets on “Bigger Than Love,” and other songs feature vibes or mariachi horns. Such touches are deft, but they -- much like the whole album -- seem more professional than personal.