Music News

The Many Faces of Ben Gibbard

We get it, Ben. We know that you're an artist whose hands have helped shaped the foundation of indie pop over the past fifteen years. We know you married and divorced the harbinger of quirky alt-girl songstresses. We know that you front one of the biggest bands to ever grace the pages of SPIN. But how is it that you're once more taking another musical direction on your own? Do you need to? Are you doing it right?

See also: Ben Gibbard: Folks' Obsession With My Personal Life Is Disappointing

Ben Gibbard, the frontman of Death Cab For Cutie, is not one to be content with just one musical project.

Arguably, he possesses the once-underground equivalent of Jack White's recording and production mania, injecting it into a number of projects that stem from Death Cab itself. What we tend to forget is that Death Cab itself was once a solo project -- it was only when Barsuk Records picked up Gibbard's basement recordings that the band became a real entity.

Yet when we think "Ben Gibbard side projects," our minds invariably go straight to The Postal Service, and with good reason. It's the platinum-selling Give Up, the 2003 first-and-last debut from Gibbard and collaborator Jimmy Tambarello, that at once captivated and despaired the meta-hip alternative crowd that would soon adopt the "indie" label. Give Up helped to capture Gibbard at his creative peak, on the heels of Death Cab's Transatlanticism.

It was also 2003 that found Gibbard sharing an EP with The American Analog Set's Andrew Kenny as a part of Post-Parlo Records' Home series. Gibbard's four tracks were as simple as can be, his melancholia and yearning voice accompanied by only an acoustic guitar.

And it's here that Gibbard was arguably at his best. The standout "You Remind Me Of Home" pairs Mike Kinsella-esque imagery with slightly delayed vocals that ooze Elliott Smith, while Gibbard's cover of American Analog Set's "Choir Vandals" strips an already-sparse track down to an emotive-yet-effective skeleton of a song. That simplistic and powerful sensibility is what it seems like Gibbard has lost on his latest offering, Former Lives. The record is what Gibbard has attributed to being the culmination of sobriety, upheaval, and failed relationships, which cheapens the title alone. Even down to the video for the album's lead single "Teardrop Windows," in which fun is poked at the music industry, reality television, and the "bad boy" stereotype of rockers, Gibbard's approach doesn't feel like commentary. It feels contrived.

In an attempt to maintain relevance, the presentation of Former Lives leaves things at face-value, lacking the post-emo relativity of Give Up and trying to make Gibbard out to be exactly what he's not. He's one of those rare artists who has the ability to actually captivate as a bedroom songwriter, equipped with a stage, a stool, and a guitar, fully independent of his fan base.

Take us back to the days of Something Like Airplanes and deliver the troubadour tendencies that you're hiding, Ben. We might even buy a million copies.

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Kristian C. Libman