There’s a distinct difference between frontmen who boldly strike out their own and those who collect enough outtakes to cobble together a solo album. For one, the language around the projects is markedly different. The accidental soloists make sure fans know this is not the end for their bands. They’ll downplay the work that went into writing the songs in the first place by acting like they rediscovered these tunes in an old, dusty box and brushed them off. That argument can also work as a disclaimer for an album with no cohesion.
Unfortunately for Death Cab For Cutie fans, frontman Benjamin Gibbard falls into the cobbled-together category with Former Lives, his solo debut that collects outtakes spanning his entire career. While still being firmly planted in the category of mainstream indie rock, the album is all over the place both thematically and musically. There are country-western songs (“Broken Yolk In Western Sky”), mariachi songs (“Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke)”), a cappella songs (“Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby”), and ’70s Laurel Canyon songs (“Lady Adelaide”). There’s an upbeat duet with Aimee Mann (“Bigger Than Love”) that, besides the presence of Mann, could easily be a new Death Cab single. There’s a song that channels Buddy Holly with a burst of necessary exuberance (“Oh, Woe”), and another that sets beautiful Beach Boys harmonies to “Let It Be” pianos (“Duncan, Where Have You Gone?”). The songs manage to be all these things, but with the exception of “Oh, Woe” and “Duncan,” don’t follow through on their own whims enough to be memorable. To borrow a line from “Lady Adelaide,” Gibbard “likes the ideas of things more than what they’re bound to bring.”
On the flip side, there are plenty of signature heavy-hearted touches from one of indie’s most sentimental frontmen. The album’s lead single, “Teardrop Windows,” personifies Seattle skyscrapers, portraying the Smith Tower as a sad sack and the Space Needle as its enemy. In modern Death Cab style, it’s a sad, specific story set to happy, jangly music. Gibbard can take a bow for writing a song that—from the title to the inspiration to the guitar line—is so purely Gibbardian that it wouldn’t be believable coming from any other famous musician, living or dead. However, that distinction doesn’t necessarily mean the track is all that good. Gibbard has to look back even further into his own catalogue to score a big win on Former Lives. The lo-fi bedroom quality that defined his earliest solo endeavor, All-Time Quarterback, permeates closing track “I’m Building a Fire,” one of two songs on the album not recorded and produced in a proper studio. The song, with its raw vocals, sparse instrumentation, and palpable emotion, ends Former Lives in a way that’s enough to make listeners wish Gibbard had peppered its simplicity throughout the rest of the album.