cone magazine

Review: Beth Gibbons, Lives Outgrown

Words by: David James Young

When assessing great singers of the 1990s, any list is incomplete without English singer-songwriter Beth Gibbons. Her pained, haunted vocals propelled trip-hop trio Portishead to create some of the decade’s most striking musical moments, including classics like “Glory Box”, “Sour Times,” “Roads” and “All Mine.” Distinctive, emotive and consistently engaging, her legacy as part of the trio remains intact as their influence continues to be felt across alternative music all the more impressive  considering they’ve only made three studio albums.

What, then, of Gibbons’ legacy beyond Portishead? Nearly 30 years removed from Portishead’s game-changing debut Dummy, Gibbons has released her debut solo album Lives Outgrown. slow-cooked over a decade-long recording process, some fans may wonder why Gibbons decided to branch out from the group so late in the game; after all, it’s not every day a 59-year-old musician releases a debut album. What’s worth considering when listening to all 10 tracks on Lives Outgrown is that it could only have come at this period in Gibbons’ life, from both a personal and creative standpoint.

Gibbons delves into profound themes such as death, grief, mortality and menopause in her lyrics. On the lead single “Floating on a Moment,” she paints herself as “a passenger/on no ordinary journey,” reflecting on the temporary nature of being. Its mantra-like outro, repeating the lyrics “all we have/is here and now,” fades into the distance as a haunting children’s choir takes over the arrangement. It feels simultaneously devastating and resolutely hopeful, given the emotional weight Gibbons puts into her vocal performance. It’s just one of the many highlights of Gibbons’ stellar performance across the album.

The environment in which Gibbons has found her idiosyncratic voice on Lives Outgrown, too, is a far cry from the trip-hop of her heyday, though it is often just as ornate and intricate. Surrounded by steely acoustic guitars and a rustic production aesthetic, Gibbons feels almost otherworldly against the creaking double bass and bustling percussion of “Reaching Out” or the Nick Drake-like guitar work on the album opener “Tell Me Who You Are Today.” Recalling the dark sonic underbelly and borderline-apocalyptic take on folk of artists like Lankum and The Unthanks, Gibbons—in fruitful collaboration with her production team, super producer James Ford and Talk Talk alum Lee Harris— has created a sonic realm that is distinctly her own.

It’s a rare feat for artists in their late 50s to reinvent themselves so deeply, especially considering the often-fatal allure of nostalgia and its pacifying comfort zone. It makes you all the more thankful that Beth Gibbons shows no interest whatsoever in going gentle into that good night. While there may be sour times ahead, Lives Outgrown offers such sweet sorrow that it truly resonates—reminding us that we are not alone on our journeys. To borrow a phrase from Portishead’s “Roads,” that alone is a cause worth the war to fight.

CONE Mag Album Score: 82/100


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