Benjamin Gibbard, probably better known as Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service frontman, is the sort of songwriter to whom charm comes pretty easily. Technically his first solo release, Former Livesis a passionate, endearing documentary of Beatles-esque balladry.
Nobody could be blamed for supposing that after years of pioneering emotional indie rock, it would be only too easy to keep re-writing the same songs – but Gibbard touches upon new worlds, with the mellifluous Mariachi horn melodies of Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke) and the jangly country-folk inflections within Broken Yolk in Western Sky both opening up Gibbard’s sound.
Skeptical Death Cab devotees may be glad to hear that this release does not comprise a tangled twelve tracks of post-divorce purgation, but rather snapshots of Gibbard’s last decade as a songwriter – often upbeat, eloquent, musically compelling and for the most part a step clear of cliché, though the Lennon-McCartney resemblance reaches its pinnacle at Duncan, Where Have You Gone?, a cloudy piano concoction clear in intent with its descending piano bassline and heavily resonant vocal declivities.
Then again, the track sits nicely in contrast to the melodic acoustic guitar anthems which make up most of Former Lives. Gibbard isn’t breaking any musical ground here, but the soft shuffle and declarative descant of Dream Song or the autumnal, amorous address Lily, strong points of the collection, are extremely effective in exhibiting the singer-songwriter’s pensive folky appeal.
One need only hear the album’s opener to gauge a general sense of Gibbard’s reflective, rousing output; though a little twee, the Barbershop-esque Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby immediately invites the listener into a vividly contemplative journal of intimate tunes. Granted – the record is at times somewhat obvious (under my umbrella, I sing a capella / This melancholy whimsical tune), but touching and familiar nonetheless.