Throughout his career, Ben Gibbard has established for himself a special breed of melancholy, an intelligent, insightful wimpiness that has defined his work with Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service, as well as his persona as a songwriter. He is the muse of the sullen twenty-something, replacing the nonspecific rage of bands such as Mayday Parade or Hawthorne Heights with a more textured maudlin alternative: an altar to self-pity that somehow manages to convince you that self-pity is the way to go.
While this may be best applied to Death Cab, Gibbard has recently sought to establish a more prominent musical name for himself outside the outfit, releasing his debut solo album Former Lives this past week. The album, which favors the bouncier depressive wit of earlier Death Cab albums (think We Have the Facts… or Something About Airplanes) over the more directly opaque mood of records such as Plans, in some ways seems like a natural heir to DCFC’s most recent offering, Codes and Keys. Unfortunately, even if the sounds seem close, this newest work from Gibbard is unfulfilling, discarding much of what made both his darkest and most uplifting works so appealing.
In many ways it’s very hard for me to talk specifically about moments on the album, considering how few actually leap out, even upon repeated listenings. It’s an oddly monotonous affair, a single musical ribbon whose twists and twirls, if they exist, go unnoticed. Sonically, there is some variety, with a few tracks indulging the clean melodic flow of Death Cab and others attempting to emulate the claustrophobic (which I mean in the best way possible) buzz of the Postal Service. But these moments never seem like more than emulations. Whenever a familiar sound crops up, it feels more like Gibbard is limply employing the tricks of another artist, rather than drawing on his own variety of musical inclinations. As such, the work manages to sound both too uniform and far too uneven, a mish-mash whose parts mix together to form a generic sonic mud that the listener is asked to wade through, hoping to find some precious lyrical trinkets among the dross.
And this is where the album really fails. As an enormous fan of both Death Cab and The Postal Service, one of the things that has always fascinated and moved me in Gibbard’s work is the sense of lyrical specificity he integrates into what are essentially explorations of general emotions. In many ways, this has always been what has separated Death Cab from the bulk of “emo” music. Songs from lesser bands bluntly attack generalized sensations of loneliness or rage or despair, forcing the listener to supply all of the details. As a result, the music of a band such as Yellowcard or My Chemical Romance can seem incredibly anthemically personal in a moment of pain. However, once that pain abates, you no longer have the details of the wound fresh in your mind, the music no longer has anything to work with, and is thus rendered impotent. Bands such as these, and songs from them, rely on their listeners to provide the actual emotion. They just supply the momentum to sweep it all up. With the best of Gibbard’s work, he made sure that his songwriting stood on its own. When listeners found moments of empathy and personal relevance in the music it was because each song was a story. Each song felt as though it was being told by a real individual who could point out details that brought the whole affair to life. Rather than reaching for a general sense of sadness, with Gibbard, listeners found characters with whom they could empathize and enter into emotional dialogue for however long the track lasted. Most emo music never transcends the role of outlet. Gibbard, at his best, provided you with a companion.
On Former Lives, though, this is not the case. The lyrics lack the sort of clarity which brings Gibbard’s earlier work to such brilliant life. Former Lives simply indulges that sense of generality that, while seeming to suggest universality, will always tumble down toward banality. We never get the sense that Former Lives is a canvas of stories, either from different individuals or from different incarnations of its composer. Rather, it just feels like Gibbard is sort of singing about stuff, which I guess isn’t horrible, but certainly isn’t particularly stirring in either direction.
The album does tend toward a bouncier more upbeat aesthetic, but, on the whole, it all feels very tonally ambivalent. The bland lyrics combined with the monotonous sound of the music leave the listener stranded, uninspired to lean toward either end of the emotional spectrum. There’s no reason to feel either sad or happy as the record moves along. We’re just left in a sort of emotional stasis, as if Gibbard’s real goal here was to simply distill musically the feeling that I can only describe as “meh.”
On all his previous work, the Death Cab frontman has proven himself to be emotionally astute, lyrically gifted, musically risk-taking, and generally just quite intelligent. He’s crafted for himself an oeuvre that, in many ways, encapsulates what it means to feel sorrow or ecstasy as a young adult: sensations tied to specific moments that end up ascending from those boundaries of specificity while still remaining grounded in their unique environments. With this solo debut he abandons that, fleeing to a shade of dispassionate grey, boring, and clichéd. This record may be Ben Gibbard talking about what it means to get over and move past one’s former life, but, from a musical standpoint, it exists only as a thoroughly convincing argument that its writer should get back to his own.