Beth Gibbons main page

Portishead’s Beth Gibbons Returns Solo, Doleful Yet Determined

With “Lives Outgrown,” her first album of her own songs in 22 years, the pensive voice of the trip-hop group confronts maturity and mortality.

[New York Times]

By Jon Pareles

“All trying but can’t escape/All going to nowhere,” Beth Gibbons sings in “Floating on a Moment” from her new album, “Lives Outgrown.” It’s an acknowledgment of mortality, of limitations, of inevitable endings. It’s also an insight that can be grim or oddly comforting. Gibbons leans tentatively toward comfort; as the song ends, children sing, “All going to nowhere” while minor chords give way to major ones and Gibbons concludes, “All we have is here and now.”

For three decades, Gibbons, 59, has made herself a voice of melancholy yearning and shattered hopes. With Portishead in the 1990s and 2000s, and on her own very occasional solo projects, she has sung about alienation, grief, doubt, loneliness, fear, betrayal and tormented love. Now, on “Lives Outgrown,” Gibbons has matured without becoming complacent. “The burden of life just won’t leave us alone,” she sings in “Burden of Life.”

Portishead’s two 1990s studio albums, “Dummy” (1994) and “Portishead” (1997), were foundations of trip-hop. They deployed atmospheric samples to conjure a foreboding netherworld, where Gibbons’s vocals could sound anxious, jazzy, witchy or utterly bereft. Portishead’s return in 2008, “Third,” was uncompromising, dissonant and volatile, bristling against the ways trip-hop had been smoothed into background music during the group’s hiatus.

In between, Gibbons collaborated on an album with Paul Webb, a.k.a Rustin Man, the bassist of Talk Talk. “Out of Season,” released in 2002, placed her voice in more naturalistic settings, with studio bands and orchestral arrangements. “Lives Outgrown,” 22 years later, is its latter-day sequel.

The album was assembled gradually over the last 10 years, while Gibbons occasionally resurfaced with other projects: composing film scores, performing Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, collaborating with Kendrick Lamar on “Mother I Sober.”

Produced by Gibbons and James Ford (of Simian Mobile Disco), “Lives Outgrown” relies on hand-played instruments, but it often juxtaposes them in surreal ways. Ford alone plays a huge assortment — guitars, dulcimer, keyboards, woodwinds, brasses, even musical saw — while the drummer Lee Harris (from Talk Talk), who shares some songwriting credits, uses all sorts of found percussion, including boxes and kitchenware. For the first time in her catalog, Gibbons allowed herself to layer on backup vocals, which materialize like a ghostly sisterhood.

Her new songs take a long view: pondering lifetimes and generations, connecting personal concerns to planetary ones. In “Rewind,” with a 5/4 beat and melodies tinged with Arabic modes, she hints at climate change, singing, “Now that we have had our fun/Time to recognize the damage done.” Drums and percussion erupt behind her as she worries that “The wild has no more to give/Gone too deep, gone too far to rewind.”

“Lives Outgrown” is full of reflections that sound hard-earned; there’s new grain in Gibbons’s voice. “Forever ends, you will grow old,” she admonishes in “Lost Changes,” a slow-strummed march with echoes of Pink Floyd’s “Hey You.” In “Beyond the Sun,” a modal drone that gathers an increasingly insistent drumbeat, she wonders, “If I had known where I’d begun/Would I still fear where I might end?”

“Lives Outgrown” isn’t a narrative, but its music is built to be heard as an entire cycle. It works its way through doubt and need and despair to find a chastened but worthwhile perseverance. The album begins and ends with pastoral guitar ballads, but drums smolder and boil over along the way. In “Reaching Out,” with a beat and bass riff that hint at Moroccan gnawa music, Gibbons rides a crescendo of frustration and longing: “I need your love to silence all my shame,” she sings.

“Lives Outgrown” ends with “Whispering Love,” a freak-folk waltz with a fingerpicked guitar, a flute and creaky violin glissandos. Gibbons sings, with acute awareness, about how love promises to hold back mortality. “Moon time will linger through the melody/Of life’s shortening, longing views,” she intones. The track continues well after her final chorus, winding down with guitar and ending with a full half-minute of birdsong and chicken clucks. In the longer view, she suggests, human lives are fleeting.