25 May 2024

Review: Lives Outgrown by Beth Gibbons

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 25 May 2024
Lives Outgrown album cover

Photo: Supplied

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Portishead were the 1990s premiere purveyors of miserablism, lumped in with their Bristol compatriots Massive Attack under the trip hop banner, but rising above it thanks to its members’ razor-sharp instincts.

Albums never seemed to come easily to the band, who famously aborted numerous attempts at a third one, trying to ignore the impossibly high expectations of fans the world over in favour of satisfying themselves. 

It was 2008 by the time it came out - over ten years since their second - and has taken till 2024 for singer Beth Gibbons to release her solo debut. The results are revelatory, and suggest the musician spent a good deal of time creating, and immersing herself in, a unique sonic landscape.

The three members of Portishead all brought their own flavour to proceedings; Adrian Utley was fluent in jazz guitar, and Geoff Barrow a dab hand at DJ scratching. Both those influences had seeped away by the time they made Third, which, in hindsight sounds like a gateway to this album, particularly in its jittering rhythms and intentionally crude acoustics.

‘Floating on a Moment’ transitions from a sinewy guitar line to heavenly dulcimer in its chorus, with the addition of a children’s choir an even more unexpected choice. They sing “all going to nowhere”, followed by Gibbon’s slightly more affirming “all we have is here and now”. 

‘Reaching Out’ meanwhile, introduces blasts of brass and fractured backing vocals around its building layers of percussion, as she sings “I need your love to silence all my shame.”

The album was produced by James Ford, whose range seems to be particularly broad: for reference, the last time I mentioned him was for his work with the Pet Shop Boys. Here he supplies the vast majority of instruments, from drums, to trumpet, cello, double bass, harmonium and a long list more

It’s often a dense mix, but Gibbons’ songs often seem to require that level of intensity, to match the gravity of her performance.

Her old band were known for a certain austere gloom, and reading the topics Gibbons says she’s covering here suggests her muse is at least partly fueled by crisis. They include “anxiety, menopause, and mortality”, although to be fair “motherhood” tops the list.

She wrote the songs over the course of a decade, and, as is perhaps inevitable at 59, lived through the deaths of several friends and family. Her statement says she “realised what life was like with no hope,” going on to say, “when you’re young, you don’t know the endings… Some endings are hard to digest.”

Fair to say it’s an album that’s frequently piercing, but also has moments like ‘Oceans’, Gibbons’ grief channelled into gorgeous balladry.

The kind of autumnal, vaguely Celtic tinge to the tunes here brought to mind PJ Harvey’s last few albums and their anarchic approach to folk music. It’s not what I would have expected from either artist, but I’m mostly just happy that Gibbons is making music at all, never mind music this rewarding.

There are layers of meaning to unpack, paired with layers of audio: I still haven’t processed the strange vocal noises that pepper the album, beyond thinking they sound cool.

It's sad, sure - one track is called ‘Burden of Life’ - but goes out on a reassuring note, a six minute swan song called ‘Whispering Love’, which finishes with the sounds of bird song, as if to remind us that, although some things end, others will continue.