Album Review: Beth Gibbons, ‘Lives Outgrown’

    Beth Gibbons was searching for the right moment to compose her debut solo album – or maybe it was a matter of feeling. The singer-songwriter’s recorded output in the past two decades has included Portishead’s starkly haunting 2008 comeback album, Third, a magnificent performance of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, recorded with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2019, and a memorable appearance on Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Mother I Sober’ in 2022. In her own writing, Gibbons, now 59, isn’t one to unpack intergenerational trauma the way Lamar does on that track, but her delivery of the chorus managed to perfectly encapsulate the tangled yearning at its core. Those great knots of time are threaded through her music, too, however inscrutable, and more than just feeling them keenly, Lives Outgrown is her opportunity to let them unfurl. Its somber, weighty, bone-chilling meditations never overstay their welcome, making brilliant use of both time and space.

    Listeners expecting a record of delicate melancholy from Gibbons’ first proper solo outing might interpret it as such, but the music is beautifully textured and subtly inventive. Working alongside producers James Ford and Lee Harris, who also played drums on Out of Season, her 2022 collaborative album with his former Talk Talk bandmate Rustin Man, Gibbons leans into melodrama as much as she does fragile, muted intimacy. It’s neither as pretty nor brooding as it initially seems. Opening track ‘Tell Me Who You Are Today’ is a bruised invitation – one the singer returns to, transformed, on the closer ‘Whispering Love’ (“Come to me/ When you can”) – its sweetness dulled with each stab of strings as it creeps toward oblivion. In ‘Burden of Life’, a song equally haunted by mortality and even more numbed by loss, the drums coil themselves around Gibbons’ vocals more than they anchor it forward; on ‘Beyond the Sun’, they are pummeling through the chaos. More arresting still is ‘Reaching Out’, where the instrumentation rattles and taunts instead of yearning, mirroring the tug-of-war in Gibbons’ performance even as she sings, “I need your love to silence all my shame.”

    Despite the simmering backdrop of existential dread, the album’s nuanced beauty and natural fluctuations keep it engaging. The arrangement on ‘Floating on a Moment’ starts out almost frigid but opens itself to a gorgeous shimmer with the addition of hammered dulcimer and vibraphone, and inviting Gibbons’ children on backing vocals certainly helps deliver a brighter twist on the line “All going to nowhere.” That the moment itself is enrapturing is the point, but it is also one of acceptance, of surrendering to the cycle of life and passing down the torch. These sentiments might strongly echo a track like ‘Resolve’, which Gibbons sang 22 years ago – “Time rolls/ As days go by/ And now I’ve figured/ That I ain’t gonna last” – but it’s remarkable how palpably her perspective has altered their shape and sense of purpose. ‘Lost Changes’ is broad and more outwardly elegiac, yet Gibbons finds depth and variability in its platitudinal statements. Though you can’t quite tell if it’s lamenting or comforting, it holds on to a tenderness that violently fades on the gritty, combative ‘Rewind’, where she briefly zooms out of intimate spaces to address the state of the planet: “This place is out of control.”

    As she has continued to tour with her main band over the past decade, Gibbons’ voice has anything but escaped our collective consciousness as the purest expression of wracked vulnerability and eerie desperation. Lives Outgrown reminds us of her commanding presence as she casts herself as a conductor, player, or merely a passenger in the events of her life. “I used to feel the feelings,” she sings on ‘Burden of Life’, before urging others to “feel alive, hold your own/ Forever ends you will grow old” on the following song. That aliveness was evident on albums like Third, and it only continues to unravel through Lives Outgrown, challenging our conception of the brittlest emotions. On Portishead’s 2008 album, the words “tired and worn” inspired a frenzied dissonance, and when they appear again on this record’s ‘Oceans’, the song reveals itself not as a dull portrait of exhaustion but an act of endurance. All but abandoning her signature quiver, Gibbons stretches words like pride, seek, and evermore – and, naturally, the feeling.

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    Beth Gibbons was searching for the right moment to compose her debut solo album – or maybe it was a matter of feeling. The singer-songwriter’s recorded output in the past two decades has included Portishead’s starkly haunting 2008 comeback album, Third, a magnificent performance...Album Review: Beth Gibbons, 'Lives Outgrown'