Beth Gibbons – Lives Outgrown

In recent times, we have tended to place great faith in late-life albums by revered artists. Johnny Cash’s releases on American Recordings, begun in 1994, perhaps set the course; since then has come, if not an explosion, at least a soft bloom of such records, from David Bowie’s Blackstar to Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, via Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways and even Tom Jones’s run of recordings with Ethan Johns. These are records we covet for their sense of retrospection and accumulated wisdom, for the light they seem to cast on our callow years.

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We accord less fanfare to music that addresses the thoughts and sensations of midlife. And this is odd, because midlife can prove a fascinating shift for those once caught up in the hedonism of the music world – they are, in effect, break-up records of the self. Consider Paul Simon’s Graceland, Frank Black’s Honeycomb, Bonnie Raitt’s Nick Of Time; their push away from youth, their sense of recalibration in the face of detour or disappointment, is every bit as compelling as the oak-aged material of the older musician.

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The middle years can also be a distinctly illuminating time in a woman’s life; the stage at which she often becomes more like herself than whatever others expect her to be. Out of this, great songwriting grows. On her first proper solo outing, Beth Gibbons explores precisely this terrain, its sweep of motherhood, anxiety, menopause, mortality; its sometimes bewildering trajectory. “When you’re young, you never know the endings, you don’t know how it’s going to pan out,” Gibbons has said of these 10 songs. “You think: we’re going to get beyond this. It’s going to get better.” But this is not always the case. “Some endings are hard to digest.”

Gibbons is now 59. Her career began 30 years ago as the singer and lyricist for Portishead, uniting with Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrow to record a series of songs that came to define both an era and a place. Above and around Barrow and Utley’s music wrapped Gibbons’ voice: a vaporous, lost and lonely sound, like some thin place between this world and another. To hear it back in 1994 was something akin to first hearing Karen Dalton or Julee Cruise or Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins; otherworldly and strange, unsettling and beautiful.

In the mid-’90s, the trio recorded two studio albums, Dummy and Portishead, then took a hiatus until 2008’s Third. In the off years, Barrow and Utley have ploughed on with other projects, and Gibbons has appeared occasionally, contributing to soundtrack work and as a guest vocalist for artists such as Jane Birkin and Kendrick Lamar, or joining 99 others in an audio installation made up of the voices of 100 women to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

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In 2002 she collaborated with Rustin Man, the pseudonym of Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb, to record Out Of Season, a jazzy-folky hybrid that drew considerable acclaim. In 2019 came Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs, a recording of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No 3 with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. And then, once again, a quiet retreat.

There has been no explanation for Gibbons’ absence or re-emergences. She loathes interviews, feels little compulsion to justify her creative decisions. The effect is that when Gibbons sings, one has the sense that she has Something To Say.

On Lives Outgrown there is much that needs to be said. Gibbons has worked on these songs for a decade, and they come with a sense of depth and distillation. The album begins with “Tell Me Who You Are Today”, a glowering song of eerie strings and pagan drums, and of Gibbons’s opening lines: “I can change the way I feel/I can make my body heal” – a reckoning of sorts with the physical self. Those anticipating the voice of Portishead era may be surprised to find Gibbons launch out with something that leans more towards recent Lucinda Williams: low, half-caught, moving here between sorcery and incantation.

This album sees the first time the singer has used backing vocals, and it proves a clever decision; not only is it sonically arresting, but it gives the sense of Gibbons singing with various selves, those titular outgrown lives rising up and sinking down — the familiar tones of her ’90s self, the Gibbons of Out Of Season’s “Show” and Gorecki’s “Lento e Largo”, all seem to show their faces. The result is a song that captures some of the disorientation of midlife womanhood, when body, purpose, identity feel in disarray.

“I realised what life is like with no hope,” as Gibbons has explained. “And that was a sadness I’d never felt. Before, I had the ability to change my future, but when you’re up against your body, you can’t make it do something it doesn’t want to do.”

While the songs that follow return to these ideas, the album does not stay in this sonic space, instead it pulses on through “Floating On A Moment”, with its shades of Sufjan Stevens’ in Illinois mode, through the punky, prickly “Rewind” and on to “Beyond The Sun”, which seems to nod to Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left era. “Whispering Love” closes the album with a kind of radiance. 

Working alongside Gibbons were producer James Ford, and Lee Harris, best known as the drummer from Talk Talk. Harris has spoken of the album’s unorthodox drum kit: Tupperware, and wooden drawers, and tin cans filled with peas; a cowhide water bottle, a paella dish, a kick drum conjured from a box of curtains. He has talked, too, of how quietly the record was played – soft timpani beaters leading the music around Gibbons’ voice.

Ford, too, joined the unconventional approach: playing recorders and chopsticks and hammers; climbing inside a piano to strike the strings with spoons; joining Gibbons and Harris as they whirled tubes around their heads and made animal noises to create a gathering, ominous sound.

It’s a clever trick. Not only is the listener continually unbalanced by the strangeness of the album’s sounds, there is also a sense of the recognisable world re-thought, familiar objects in new places, and life dampened down and muted.

Lives Outgrown is a quite different prospect to Gibbons’ previous work – more intimate, more personal, coloured by the grief and goodbyes she has weathered in recent years. But it is still possible to find a thread that runs from here to Out Of Season, and back to Portishead. There is a kind of ‘outness’, that these various stages of her career all share; a sense of dislocation or disembodiment, a repeated desire to find the self. “Who am I, what and why?” she sang on “Sour Times”. Three decades on, it’s a question that Gibbons is still driven to explore.

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