Beth Gibbons: Lives Outgrown Album Review

May 17, 2024 - Music

Beth Gibbons has made inactivity into an art form. In Portishead she sang as if hanging onto the microphone for dear life, her voice the embodiment of languorous misery. Her recorded output since then has arrived at a snail’s pace and her reputation has grown with each fallow year. Following the release of Portishead’s Third, in 2008, Gibbons has performed Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 with the Polish National Radio Symphony, featured on Kendrick Lamar’s “Mother I Sober,” and done precious little else in public. Gibbons does nothing that she doesn’t have to and she does it in her own sweet time, which makes the arrival of Lives Outgrown feel like a revelatory occasion.

So why did Lives Outgrown bring Gibbons out of her shell? And why now? “People started dying,” she said. Three full decades after Portishead first appeared on the scene, she reintroduces herself with an album inspired by goodbyes, informed by the kind of perspective that’s only possible by looking backward. She added, “When you’re young, you never know the endings, you don’t know how it’s going to pan out.” At the heart of Lives Outgrown is a push and pull between past, present, and future, with Gibbons delving into her personal history for inspiration, while studiously avoiding the palette that made Portishead so beloved.

Stylistically, Lives Outgrown approaches folk music, thanks to its acoustic guitars and strings; but it feels denser, louder, and more exploratory, like stumbling across a junkyard deep in the forest. Unusual textures abound: In “Tell Me Who You Are Today,” producer James Ford (of Simian Mobile Disco) strikes piano strings with metal spoons; for another track, he and Gibbons spin whirly tubes over their heads, in search of the perfect creepy tone.

Melodies of endless melancholy and lyrics of pointed depth, reminiscent of Gibbons’ work with Portishead and (briefly) Rustin Man, her duo with Talk Talk’s Paul Webb, reflect the singer’s period of self-reflection. Lives Outgrown has moments of crushing relatability, as she tackles subjects like motherhood, anxiety, and menopause, her unvarnished humanity a world away from the otherworldly rage she inhabited on Third. “Without control/I’m heading toward a boundary/That divides us/Reminds us,” she sings on “Floating on a Moment,” striking a beautifully sparse rhythm and tone, while the opening couplet of “Ocean” (“I fake in the morning, a stake to relieve/I never noticed the pain I proceed”) distills years of dull suffering into two elegant lines. Her melodies are strong as iron: The elegantly inevitable “Floating on a Moment” and cathartic album closer “Whispering Love” are among the best songs that Gibbons has put her name to.

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