Beth Gibbons | Lives Outgrown (Domino)

It’s remarkable that this record exists in the first place, as Beth Gibbons’ recording pace makes Peter Gabriel look prolific. Lives Outgrown, the first proper solo album from the former Portishead singer, doesn’t sound like Portishead—only the precipitous lead single “Floating on a Moment” comes close—but retains a sense of her former band’s gift for quietly dramatic, frequently ominous, moments. A reflection on aging and loss, the record’s acoustic folk backbone is enlivened by dynamic arrangements (courtesy of Gibbons and producer James Ford) that give the impression of a Tiny Desk concert recorded by 25 people somehow stuffed into one little room. The album’s resounding percussion, courtesy of drummer and co-songwriter Lee Harris (formerly of Talk Talk and Orton’s former collaborative project with Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb, Rustin Man) is a key factor in making these naturally quiet songs seem as big, and hit as hard, as possible. If Lives Outgrown even has an antecedent, it’s the jazz-folk of Gibbons’ work on Rustin Man’s 2002 album Out of Season.

Much of Lives Outgrown conveys a sense of uneasiness. “For Sale” is redolent of this disquiet, carried along by an errant violin and rumbling acoustic guitar that gives the song the air of a creepy Eastern European folk tune. Every instrument in “Burden of Life” sounds purposefully out of tune, and adds up to a striking whole, as Gibbons laments how “the burden of life just won’t leave us alone / and the time’s never right, when you’re losing a soul.” Naked drums are joined by maracas and wailing jazz horns in the gently propulsive “Beyond the Sun,” which embodies the album’s preoccupation with absence and doubt. “If I had known where I’d begun, would I still fear where I might end? / If I had known you from the start, would I still visit the place in the dark?”

The cover to Beth Gibbons’ Lives Outgrown

Gibbons’ haunting voice remains so; her anguished, almost alien vibrato has taken on a new dimension via an added touch of lived-in gravel. She positively hovers above the movie-score backdrop of “Reaching Out,” ascending above bounding tympani and queasy strings, as she sings “I need your love / to silence all my shame.” Her vocals have a way of holding you at an eerily precise distance—close enough to understand, but not close enough to interfere.

Interestingly, for an album so concerned with loss, finality, and the specter of hopelessness, Lives Outgrown is highly confident. Gibbons sings of “motherhood, anxiety, menopause, and mortality” with clarity and grace, lending the thematically heavy record an odd lightness that keeps it from being impenetrable. It’s a gift to the listener, granting the toehold necessary to spend the time getting to know these songs that they require, and deserve.

As I enter my own middle age, I’ve become fascinated by dispatches from artists from my teen/young adult years who are exploring that same place in life (albeit usually a few years down the road from me). On Lives Outgrown, Gibbons captures all of the nuance, but loses none of the edge, as she makes her way a few more stations down life’s inexorable one-way trip. | Mike Rengel

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