Album Reviews

Beth Gibbons – Lives Outgrown

(Domino) UK release date: 17 May 2024

As one may expect from someone who’s taken nearly 30 years to make their solo album, the level of craft and attention to detail on the Portishead star’s debut is exceptional

Beth Gibbons - Lives Outgrown The word ‘iconic’ may have changed its meaning over the years – what was once used to describe, say, the Taj Mahal, could also be referring to an old Eastenders episode – but there is one voice over the past 30 years which is truly iconic: that of former Portishead singer Beth Gibbons.

Given her status, it’s extraordinary that we’ve heard so little from her. Apart from Portishead’s three classic albums, Gibbons has released a collaboration with Talk Talk‘s Paul Webb (under the name Rustin Man), and a performance of Górecki‘s Symphony Number 3, sung in Polish, as well as guesting with artists as diverse as Kendrick Lamar and stoner metal band Gonga.

Her debut solo album has been long in the making though. There was talk back in 2012 that she was writing and recording a solo record for Domino, and 12 years later we have Lives Outgrown. It sounds, pretty much, as you’d expect a Beth Gibbons solo album to sound: immediately atmospheric, with some beautiful orchestration, and that unmistakable voice holding court above it all.

It is not, perhaps, the cheeriest of listens. References to mortality hang heavy over Lives Outgrown – at one point on Rewind, Gibbons sings “we all know what’s coming” and James Ford‘s production can be unsettling and discordant. It’s certainly a mile away from the sweeping strings that have become Ford’s trademark.

Yet after a couple of plays, this soon worms its way into your brain. It’s one of those records that’s best listened to through headphones in a darkened room and let the soundscapes take you over. There’s a relaxed pastoral feel to opening track Tell Me Who You Are Today, with a gently plucked acoustic, but a droney hum, woozy string arrangements and Gibbons’ whispered vocal soon lend it a more eerie air. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons with PJ Harvey‘s most recent album, I Inside The Old Year Dying.

Elsewhere, the mood is more sumptuous. Lost Changes is probably the standout track on the album, a lush ballad powered along by a gorgeous string arrangement, while the devastatingly beautiful Oceans feels like a treatise on late middle-age, with Gibbons lamenting that “my heart is tired and worn”.

It’s the arrangements that keep you coming back to Lives Outgrown though. Discordant noise swirls underneath Gibbons throughout Rewind, which also finds time to throw in a woozy drum solo and plays out with the sound of young children chattering away. The extraordinary Burden Of Life slowly builds up and up, and is another mediation on ageing (“I used to feel the feelings,” runs one line), while there’s an insistent pulse of desperation to the ‘John Barry if he were scoring a low-budget indie film about a crack dealer’ orchestrations of Reaching Out.

Lives Outgrown may not be an easy listen, but that’s a hallmark of Gibbons’ career. As one may expect from someone who’s taken nearly 30 years to make a solo album, the level of craft and attention to detail on this album is exceptional. It may not be as, well, iconic as Portishead’s Dummy, but there are moments on Lives Outgrown that certainly stand shoulder to shoulder with Beth Gibbons’ glory days.

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More on Beth Gibbons
Beth Gibbons – Lives Outgrown
Beth Gibbons & the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra / Penderecki – Henryk Górecki: Symphony No. 3
Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man – Out Of Season
Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man @ Shepherd’s Bush Empire