Beth Gibbons is best known for being the extraordinary voice behind Portishead who more or less defined “trip-hop” in 1994. The combination of desolate beats, atmospheric songs and Gibbons’ vocals led to Portishead becoming near ubiquitous and to winning the Mercury Music Prize. Then, one follow up album later, they disappeared, and apart from a live album, nothing has been heard from them since.
So does this first “solo” album from Gibbons spell the end for Portishead? Apparently not, as the third album Alien is due for release early in 2003. This collaboration with Rustin Man is no stopgap though. Rustin’ Man is better known as Paul Webb, former bass player with Talk Talk, and his old group’s evocative moods are painted all over Out Of Season. The result is an album that can stand shoulder to shoulder with both Portishead releases.
Prepare to be taken aback though, at the change in styles. Where Portishead specialised in sampling, scratching and smooth beats, Rustin’ Man’s speciality is wispy acoustic guitars, swooping strings and stark pianos. What dominates over all though, is Beth Gibbons’ voice.
It’s extraordinary, given that five years have passed since the last Portishead album, how familiar Gibbons’ vocals are. The opening Mysteries features Gibbons backed by just a plucked acoustic guitar and multi-layered backing vocals. As soon as she sings “God knows how I adore life…” you’re reminded that you’re listening to one of the most remarkable voices around. She could reduce the listener to tears just by singing the phone book.
The pace rarely lifts throughout the record – this is an album to be listened to late at night while relaxing from the stresses and strains of the day. Even one of the more upbeat tracks – the standout Tom The Model – has an air of sadness thanks to some particularly poignant lyrics (“I can understand that it can’t be/guess it’s harder as you were meant for me…I can’t hide my own despair/I guess I never will”). The soaring, brass-backed chorus somehow makes the track uplifting.
Romance makes Gibbons sound almost uncannily like Billie Holliday – which may make some jazz purists shudder, but listening to the track sends a shiver down the spine. Elsewhere, the shuffling beat of Drake and the almost unbearably melancholic Funny Time Of Year contribute to making Out Of Season one of the records of the year.
Only the closing Rustin’ Man is a disappointment – the ambient effects overwhelm the song, leaving Gibbons’ vocals indistinct, which is somewhat of a crime, given the quality of her voice. Overall however, it’s clear that the next Portishead record is really going to have to be of an unbelievably high standard to overshadow this release. Wallowing in sadness never felt so good.