Beth Gibbons
Lives Outgrown



A handful of adjectives seem to follow Beth Gibbons around. “Tortured”, “bleak” – they crop up again and again in descriptions of the singer, the combined effect being the construction of a sort of proxy personality to drape over that remarkable voice. The problem is, those imagined traits have been derived solely from the same voice they are seeking to embellish: after all, aside from a couple of brief interviews in the mid-90s around the time Portishead’s debut Dummy was first released, and occasional inter-song ad libs during gigs, no evidence even really exists of Gibbons’ speaking voice, let alone any biography beyond her songs (whose lyrics generally lean towards the abstract anyway).

To that end, then, Gibbons is, on the one hand, objectively unknowable: her singing prompts the invention of a vivid temperament that is then, in turn, projected back onto her singing, and an ungraspable circularity ensues that feels utterly real but is actually a mirage; a set of feelings disconnected from Gibbons herself; an apparently hyper-authentic voice missing a three-dimensional body. 

On the other hand, some musicians’ performances are unique enough to withstand such a barrage of projection, for the illusion to be entirely convincing even when you know it’s just that, and Gibbons is surely one: her voice is not simply a vessel for the delivery of beautiful words, but something more emotionally fundamental and instinctive. It nags at the heartstrings and the neck hairs, it seems, because of its very sonic structure (and perhaps even more so because of its ghostly separation from any real-life information): when Gibbons performed Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2014, she sung in Polish despite not speaking a word of the language, and the effect was no less haunting because of the linguistic hurdle. Instead, something seemingly innate in her vocal cords rendered core emotion at a root level, pulling an exquisite sorrow out of those billowing clustered strings to the extent that one suspects Gibbons could sing your weekly shopping list with that cracked, wracked diction of hers and still elicit mass shivers.

Kendrick Lamar understood that superpower, too, when he hired Gibbons last year to sing the refrain on ‘Mother I Sober’, Mr Morale & The Big Steppers’ climax track. Her lines on that chorus (“I wish I was somebody/Anybody but myself”) while affecting, are not winning any Pulitzers, but Gibbons’ delivery – bleary-eyed, wine-sodden and fragile, textured without being rough – wrang a nuance out of those eight words that few others could.

Beth Gibbons by Netti Habel

Given such a 30-year track record, then, it might be reasonable to suspect new music from Gibbons to continue with her trademark uncanny characteristic of deeply moving songs that are also semantically opaque, the musical equivalent of tear-stained letters that are impossible to read. And at a certain level, Lives Outgrown, her debut solo album proper, is exactly that: here are ten dark folk songs very much in the minor mode, imbued variously with soft explosions of wind instruments, plucked pastoral ambiance and beautifully slow, serpentine melodies. All are given differing degrees of vivacity by the singer’s unmistakable sigh; none give much away on first listen aside from a gently elegant sadness.

 As the album cracks open, though, shards of detail start to glisten that suggest a different Beth Gibbons, one that might, for the first time in her recorded career, want to share some of her feelings more directly. ‘Rewind’ is an angry howl at the climate crisis (“now that we’ve had our fun/time to recognise the damage donewe all know what’s coming/we’ve gone too far to rewind”), and ‘Floating on a Moment’ is a stark reminder of mortality alongside an attendant plea to cherish life and those around us (“we’re all going to nowhereit just reminds us that all we have is here and now”) made all the more intimate – and revelatory – by the presence of Gibbons’ own children singing the song’s refrain. For those who want to understand more about the interior life behind that voice, this feels significant: in the space of a couple of songs, Gibbons has mutated from unknowable enigma to a grieving mother concerned about her kids’ lives on a rapidly heating planet after she’s gone.

Perhaps most arresting in this regard, though, is ‘Oceans’, in which Gibbons, sounding at her most ruined, appears to confront the menopause by way of a metaphor for being drowned and then reborn: “ovulation” is one of those words that might never have appeared in a pop song until now, and it’s by no means a straightforward set of lyrics, but there’s a courageous bluntness to the subject matter nonetheless, particularly coming from lyricist normally given to such inscrutability.

For all Gibbons’ newfound candour, however, it’s also worth noting that poetic vagueness is still the predominant lyrical style on Lives Outgrown – we’re lightyears from some Swiftian tell-all diaristic romp here – and so to focus on her words is only to tell half the story of Lives Outgrown. Indeed, the other half of what makes the record so engrossing is the atmosphere Gibbons and her collaborators, particularly Talk Talk’s Lee Harris and producer James Ford, have managed to conjure, organic and hushed and spacious, but also intimate and filmic and crepuscular, full of never-quite-revealed threat lurking just out of frame: the brass stabs and tumbling drums on ‘Reaching Out’ have an urgent main-character-peril desperation to them, and the bass clarinets and nylon-string guitars of opener ‘Tell Me Who You Are Today’ give everything a woody, round sound, like a forest clearing at dusk. Even ‘Lost Changes’ elegiac violins and funereal marching pace, while gilded and stately, carries something of the eerie throughout. 

It’s a cinematic soundworld similar to that of Portishead’s last two albums – particularly their astonishing Third – but using different tools: where Gibbons’ first band would lean on the mechanical menace of synths to generate tension, here we find acoustic instruments (skronking sax lines and Psycho-esque piercing strings) doing the same job, and the result is a soundtrack to an imaginary film closer in feel to The Wickerman than to Portishead’s dystopian-future thrillers.

Also like Third, Lives Outgrown remains at its heart an album of art music built for close listening – this is not the smokers’ paradise of Dummy or even the gentle Memphis groove of Gibbons’ last (semi-)solo outing from 2002, Out of Season – and although pretty melodies and gently picked guitars abound, it’s the sharpness and acidity of the surrounding clashing instrumentation, and of course Gibbons’ voice, that gives the record its bite.

It all makes for a dense and engrossing record whose strangeness is only amplified the closer you examine it, but also the perfect vessel for Gibbons most personal work yet. After all, from one perspective, Lives Outgrown could be interpreted as a voice being made flesh, a musical pair of 3D glasses that allows listeners to appreciate the person behind the singer, and behind that voice: Gibbons and the music alike transform across its running time from a taut, stormy start to warm bucolic finish, with the final sounds those of a rural farmyard, of life going on around (or despite it) the despair. From another, however, and maybe more appealingly, it’s just a document of slow, steady growth: Lives Outgrown is an album ten years in the making, and from the sounds of it, necessarily so. It’s also a record by a unique soul who was 50 when it was announced and who will be 60 at the start of next year, a record by a woman so often casually categorised as “tortured” or “bleak”, but also one who has finally, nearing her seventh decade, appeared to have found a measure of peace.