Beth Gibbons Sets Cycles of Grief Aglow on the Perfect, Anchoring Lives Outgrown

The Portishead vocalist/lyricist took a decade to concoct her first-ever solo studio album and came out with bleak, orchestral, funereal songs about motherhood, mortality, and everything caught in-between.

Music Reviews Beth Gibbons
Beth Gibbons Sets Cycles of Grief Aglow on the Perfect, Anchoring Lives Outgrown

At the end of “Threads,” the final song on Portishead’s last album, Third, vocalist and lyricist Beth Gibbons asked one last question of her listeners: “Tired, worn, where do I go?” 16 years later, it’s clear where she went. But let’s circle back. Gibbons, ever the spectral, enchanting voice at the center of Portishead’s three studio albums, hasn’t remained entirely dormant for the last decade and change. In 2013, she signed with Domino Records and announced that she’d be releasing a solo album soon, but nothing of that ever came. Instead, in 2019, she put out a recording of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs that she’d made with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and was conducted by Krzysztof Penderecki. Three years later, she appeared on the song “Mother I Sober” from Kendrick Lamar’s album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, for which her featured writing credit scored her an Album of the Year nomination.

Gibbons is a unique figure in the alternative and experimental music canon, if only for how little of her we’ve had access to over the last 30 years. Like Judee Sill, Lauryn Hill and Nick Drake, her catalog is minimal but her impact is immeasurable. The work she did with Portishead in the 1990s, namely on Dummy and the band’s self-titled second LP, became landmark entries in the trip-hop genre that was emerging in England at the time. With Geoff Barrow’s groundbreaking instrumentation centering the project, it allowed Gibbons’ voice to be as angelic as it was razor-sharp—she was able to bend notes at will, becoming humid, atmospheric and hazy at different intervals, all mesmerizingly so. Like Adrian Utley’s menacing guitar riffs on a song like “Glory Box,” Portishead got its kicks by riffing on a fabled musical world stationed someplace in-between a spy movie, noise show and DJ set.

But it was on Third where Portishead and Gibbons unveiled their chameleonic sensibilities—morphing, in real time, into a psych- and folk-rock band that let its own progressions tumble into muscular electronica fit with cathartic, droning beats and shocking guitar tones. Gone were the turntable scratchings of their previous projects, as the beloved Bristol trio dared to embrace their own krautrock inclinations in the name of redefining the brand they’d made a cornerstone of a multi-hyphenated English music scene. On Third, Gibbons sounded more tortured, kinetic and frantic than ever; the multitudes of her generational lilt piercing through the claustrophobia of Barrow’s arrangements. And, for 11 years, that was the last we’d heard from her.

Now, her question of “Where do I go?” seems to have its answer. “If I could change the way I feel, if I could make my body heal,” Gibbons sings at the genesis of her new album, Lives Outgrown. “Free from all I hear inside, all brought forward from my hand.” Lives Outgrown is, by technical measure, her debut solo album—though she did release a studio album, Out of Season, in 2002, albeit in collaboration with Talk Talk bassist Rustin Man (or Paul Webb, if you know him personally). And by that technical measure, it is the best debut album to hit the shelves since Ctrl seven years ago—perhaps even as far back as Madvillainy in 2004. Take that appraisal with a grain of salt, however, as few artists can claim they were a crucial fixture in a band like Portishead, whose own debut album was one of the best projects of the 1990s.

That doesn’t diminish Gibbons’ turn here. In fact, it only validates just how singular Lives Outgrown is. It sounds nothing like Dummy, Portishead or Third sonically, instead brandishing the same kind of experimental flourishes that all of those aforementioned albums spun into gold all while nurturing the folk sounds of Out of Control to a dependable extreme. But even then, Gibbons would be remiss to just make a folk album. With orchestral fractures and guitar plucks that are languid and patiently pronounced, the songs of Lives Outgrown sound as ornate as they do menacing. “Come over here, listen to me,” Gibbons quakes on opening track “Tell Me Who You Are Today.” Producer James Ford hits the piano strings with metal spoons. Later on the album, he and Gibbons will channel a foreboding energy by spinning whirly tubes above their heads. The remaining nine tracks each make for a beacon of unflinching vulnerability, piercing through Earth’s most burdensome fits of mortality. It’s a coming-of-middle-age siren, 10 chapters dressed in unorthodox ways that encapsulate a humanly portrayal of maternity in precious, fragmented and awing stretches. In Gibbons’ own words, it’s an album full of “lots of goodbyes.”

If you arrive at Lives Outgrown looking for something that sounds like Portishead, you might find your thirst briefly satiated by “Floating on a Moment”—but it’s only a slight parallel. The song is melancholic yet enchanting, as Gibbons finds herself trapped in a purgatory of middle-age—the prosperous hope of the future suddenly feels dimmer, and retrospect snaps itself back into place with a much less graceful ferocity. “Without control, I’m heading toward a boundary that divides us, reminds us,” she sings. A bassline shudders while a thinly plucked dulcimer sparkles and a rush of toms thud and pulse. With two minutes left to unfurl, a choir of harmonies hum until they explode into a mirage of towering hymns. “All going to nowhere,” they cry out, echoing Gibbons’ words back to her. “It’s not that I don’t want to return,” she confesses. “It just reminds us that all we have is here and now.”

Lives Outgrown achieves a wondrous feat of relatability—even if what inspired these songs are not universal feelings. Gibbons’ splendor is her innate ability to make our own experiences feel denser and louder. When she sings about the timing never being right “when you’re losing a soul” on “Burden of Life,” anyone who has confronted the monstrous clamors of grief may feel it deeply. Gibbons likens her response to lostness to pebbles holding court on a shoreside, to understanding why generations dwindle. “I used to feel the feelings,” she admits, over the strums of her own acoustic guitar and Lee Harris’ percussive thrums. “Love that I once said I’d never rile.” “Burden of Life,” which sits on the tracklist between two singles, aches itself into a symphony that gashes and strains. The cello, violin and viola strings are frightening as they screech, only to fade delicately into a farfisa and harmonium outro. The daunting, emotive arrangement mirrors the daunting realities of getting older and losing loved ones.

Many songs on Lives Outgrown begin with Gibbons’ six-string and her vocals, and “Lost Changes” is no different—changing from a folk song into an elemental, colossal skyscraper of solinas, recorders, flutes, strings, five guitars and whistling. The song is life advice from Gibbons disguised as a solemn lament, directed at a child, a partner, a friend, herself or no one in particular. “Hey, you, over there,” she signals. “Don’t pretend you’re unaware—realize the tenderness, appreciate the sweet caress ‘cause, honestly, love changes, things change.” Like how Third was full of beat-switches and stringed sequiturs, Lives Outgrown revels in tonal shifts that color slowly. The emotional bandwidth of a song like “Lost Changes” sounds like gospel. Some might categorize that as “chamber pop,” but Gibbons’ forlorn vocals are much more self-gravitational than that of a bellowing ensemble. “All that I want you to want me the way that you used to. All that I want is to love you the way that I used to,” she sings, sending “Glory Box” transmissions into her own musical lineage.

Beth Gibbons’ first solo record is embroidered with raw, cherished instrumentation that duets with open spaces. It is sometimes beautiful, sometimes jagged and worrisome. The first minute of “Rewind” is gnarly, as Raven Bush’s violin and viola cut through the windswept, airy background—zagging whenever Gibbons’ vocals zig. “Empty with our possessions and trouble is, we still feel unfed,” she sings. “Hunting her down, sweet mother nature, ‘til nothing left if this goes on. And the wild has no more to give, makes no sense. This place is out of control and we all know what’s coming.” As the midpoint for Lives Outgrown, “Rewind” is cataclysmically resound. Ford employs destitute levels of droning feedback beneath a pile of acoustic and baritone guitars, and the inaudible sounds of children playing begin to linger in vignettes. It’s a breakdown that will turn your bones inside out, a resolution of a simple, well-worn truth: We can only go forward.

“Reaching Out” is the “poppiest” song on the record, if you can even validate it as such—as Gibbons’ idea of pop music is something far more chaotic and stacked. Rather than drown the arrangements with bubblegum tonics, Ford finds instrumental resolve in everything from a Chinese lute to a marching snare to a bass clarinet. He and Gibbons call upon Howard Jacobs to play bass and tenor sax, both of which skitter in unison like suspects in a noir spoof—a sequence aptly fit for a Portishead record but resurrected on Lives Outgrown as a vessel that unifies treasures of loss. Jacobs’ woodwind constructions speak fluidly, glitching and marauding like lines on a lie-detector test or like a death march across some ancient, bygone yesteryear. Gibbons’ lyricism, too, is poetic in an almost medieval way, as she blisters her verses with revelatory familiarities and, sometimes, intentionally exiles the subjects. “Where’s the love gone, where’s the feeling, where’s the belief in the words we’re breathing,” she sings. “Why do wander away from me?”

For as uptempo as “Reaching Out” is, much of Lives Outgrown’s B-side is far more patiently tempered and all the more devastatingly downcast. “Oceans” is the connecting thread between Gibbons’ life now and Third’s conclusion 16 years ago. “Fooled ovulation, but no babe in me,” she sings. “And my heart was tired and worn.” The strings are more symphonic than episodic, as Ford bows a saw while Bush plays a baritone viola—each musician delivering a harrowing set dressing for Gibbons’ shattering deplorables about maternity and menopause. As she sings of diving into the ocean to “undress the answers,” she comes to a conclusion of direction: “I’ll feel the length of emotion underneath, not afraid anymore,” Gibbons declares. “I can’t hide from ever the answers, I’m lost in the tide just like heavens inside.”

And on “For Sale,” Gibbons weds the alienating discomforts of menopause with affectionate urges. The question of whether or not a body crossing over into its second half is worthy of being adored is a heady one, and there’s a potency in Gibbons’ singing (and, in this case, her backing vocals, too), which sometimes wails with the fauna of Bush’s sharpened violin. Ford’s percussion aligns with resonator guitars and drones, as Gibbons pleas: “Just ask yourself: How would you like life to be? Just ask yourself: Would you choose to love me?” Ford then pulls out his entire arsenal for the penultimate “Beyond the Sun”: piano, guitars, harmonium, farfisa, recorders, flues, those singing tubes I mentioned earlier, a bowed saw, dulcimer, violin, bass, cello and clarinet. And not once does it ever feel like the gravitas of the song is insurmountably weighed down by the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink arrangement. Childlike choral harmonies from Senab Adekunle and Herbie, Gracie and Roo placate the avalanche with a grounding whimsy, while Gibbons operates in an unorthodox syntax that tends to the visages of end-times she hints at through images of darkness and a heart once full of faith but now ravaged by doubt. “If I have spoken of a world I once was, words that I noticed when we were apart,” she sings. “If I remember a moment before, would I of risen, not felt so unsure?”

All of this grief becomes momentous serendipity on the bucolic pastoral of “Whispering Love.” Gibbons points her focus toward a summer sun breaking through gaps in “the trees of wisdom” and considers the pureness of its light. It begins etched in the remnants of some frolicking ‘60s folk romance, only to balloon into a rapture of a high-heaven refrain. “Oh, whispering love, blow through my heart when you can,” she sings. Gracie hums, Ford and Gibbons’ acoustic guitars linger on each note. The violins, viola, flute, clarinet and dulcimer soften, and Harris’ found sounds flutter cinematically—its conclusion like the bookend of a horror film or a violent life, where the clouds have, at long last, parted for good. Staying true to the record’s title, Gibbons steps out of life’s shrinking, enveloping strangeness and embraces the warmth of a countryside awaiting her. Gibbons was nearly 50 when Lives Outgrown was first announced. She’s almost 60 now that it’s here and, as growth would so earnestly have it, the torments and tortures that were once adrift on “Floating on a Moment” and “Oceans” have now soothed.

I have sat with Beth Gibbons’ debut album, Lives Outgrown, for weeks now. The first time I listened to it all the way through, it registered like perfection immediately. I couldn’t find a single crack in it; the 10 songs nurture each other, and they all wear their own shapes of armor. But to deem an album—a new album, mind you—as “perfect” can be a hasty affair. Too often, I myself have reviewed an album favorably and pushed out a high score by release day, only to revisit the material weeks or months later and lose touch with the parts that once awed me. And that is a crux of music criticism in 2024; patience is no longer a virtue when an algorithm is involved. But I have listened to Lives Outgrown more than five times all the way through over the last 10 days, looking for a nit to pick. There’s nothing, no remnants of misfire left beneath the stones turned over.

Some outlets award five, 10, maybe even 15 perfect scores every year. Others will go 10 years or more in-between labeling projects as “instant classics.” Both sides of the spectrum can be maddening to engage with. On one hand, you want people to be less precious with their takeaways from art; elsewhere, not everything can be a masterpiece, nor should anyone want that to be the case. We saw this in 2020 with Pitchfork, when they gave an album a 10 for the first time since awarding Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that designation in 2010: Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Likewise, Paste has gone 16 years since last awarding an album a 10. Coincidentally, that album was Portishead’s Third.

Giving Beth Gibbons’ solo debut such a mark is more of a coincidence than some calculated measurement of this magazine’s lore. Perfect albums have come and perfect albums have gone—some of them reviewed, some of them left sitting idle in email inboxes. What Lives Outgrown manages to do is make itself obvious and crushing quickly. In the age of streaming, 10s are as reviled as they are treasured. The idea of timelessness, many argue, cannot be measured so immediately. And yet, Gibbons employs a serpentine, elegant sense of sadness, madness and grief that exist at all corners of this record and can be found yesterday, today and tomorrow within ourselves, too. Across 45 minutes, you will see the bottom of life’s trenches and you will taste the hues of a breaking morning; the dimensions of Gibbons’ anguish will span beyond tone-shifts and compositional glories; you will remember the ache and you will remember exactly how Beth Gibbons sings it.

It’s hard to say what the skeleton of Lives Outgrown looked like in 2013 when it was first announced, or what various masks it’s worn in the decade since. There is an obvious rebirth contextualized here, as Gibbons faces a burdensome, dying, scorched Earth with her children’s arms interlocked with her own. Her body is not what it once was, and life’s ugly fragility now begs to be cherished unlike ever before. “I just want to be a woman,” Gibbons sang at the end of Dummy three decades ago. Now, she looks at what fires within her remain lit, blunt and damning. She says their names, putting “ovulation” in the same breath as her heart and refusing to forgive all else, treating grief and aging as things to co-exist with rather than to conquer.

And if Dummy sounded like it came from a different planet, then Lives Outgrown sounds like it came from right here, right now, just when we needed it most. “Reality fails me, it takes me so close,” Gibbons beckons. And close she gets, indeed, armed with a softened, courageous voice that has stuck with us for 30 years already. Where she leaves us now is in a place of folkloric hope, where the “moon time will linger through the melody of life’s shortening, longing view.” “They will rise where they can, where they know they are safe to go,” Gibbons concludes on “Whispering Love,” speaking of nobody and everybody all at once—her days lost now regained, and life’s clock firmly set back to zero. Like she said in 1994, this is the beginning of forever and ever.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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