Beth Gibbons Lives Outgrown Review: Portishead singer makes stunning solo debut

Thirty years after the release of Portishead’s debut, Beth Gibbons finally makes her first solo album.

Beth Gibbons 2024

by Victoria Segal |
Updated on

Beth Gibbons

Lives Outgrown


“GOD KNOWS how I adore life,” sang Beth Gibbons on Mysteries, the opening track on Out Of Season, her 2002 collaboration with Talk Talk bassist Paul ‘Rustin Man’ Webb. Such hello-birds-hello-sky sentiment isn’t generally associated with Portishead’s singer – not unless the birds are the kind that circle hungrily overhead and the sky is falling down.

Her sparse output since Out Of Season underlines how her voice has become a prized totem of misery, a gift for those wishing to convey despair, desolation – or just sometimes – fragile hope. Inevitably, she was the presiding dark spirit of Portishead’s starkly contorted 2008 comeback Third, but neither genre nor language obstructed Gibbons’ ability to communicate. When, in 2014, she courageously performed Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Krzysztof Penderecki, it was announced she was learning the piece without speaking “the mother tongue”, finding emotional depth beyond grammar.

That same year, she guested with Bristol metal band Gonga on their version of Black Sabbath (or, as they rightly preferred, “Black Sabbeth”). In 2022, she sang on Mother I Sober, the raw dissection of intergenerational trauma on Kendrick Lamar’s album Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers, while last year she covered Joy Division and David Bowie with Afghan girl group Miraculous Love Kids.

With Lives Outgrown, though, she is officially (if not literally) alone, her first solo album carving a path through its own Lonesome Valley. Recorded with Talk Talk drummer Lee Harris and producer James Ford (on an incongruous hot streak after working with Arctic Monkeys, Blur, Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys on their latest records), it has taken 10 years to emerge, a fitting span of time for an album so profoundly concerned with its passing. Despite her habitual elusiveness, Gibbons has stepped out to explain that these are songs shadowed by death, songs that deal with loss, grief and the menopause – a life-phase she describes as a “massive audit” that “cuts you at the knees”. In other words, Lives Outgrown asks – back to Black Sabbath – “what is this that stands before me?”

On Floating On A Moment, the answer is largely “nothing good” – or maybe, just nothing at all. “Without control/I’m heading for the boundary that divides us,” she sings over the track’s stately Plain Gold Ring rhythm, “travelling on a voyage where the living/They have never been.” The backing vocals are divided between cowled, monkish chanting and Gibbons’ own kids sweetly singing “all going to nowhere”. It’s a more medieval take on The Flaming Lips’ cosmic-uncle hit Do You Realize?? (“…that everyone you know someday will die”), an acutely painful and lovely rendering of the old “life’s a killer” line.

From the stormy opening swell of Tell Me Who You Are Today, Linda Perhacs if she’d been raised in a Somerset barn, Lives Outgrown is a record alert to shed skins, sensitive to the inexorable damage caused by the years. On Lost Changes, Gibbons is in full Cassandra mode, calling out the oblivious – “hey you, over there” – before declaring “forever ends/ You will grow old.” On its swinging pendulum of a chorus, as across the whole album, the instrumentation is richly varied: hammered dulcimer, vibraphone, flute, Raven Bush’s violin and viola and Harris’s inventive percussion (a box of curtains, a paella dish). The record might have taken years to create, but it still feels intimate, natural, sometimes threateningly unpredictable, sounds rising and falling against Gibbons’ vocals like a tide.

There are moments of high drama: the car-chase brass on Reaching Out echoes Portishead’s early cinematic stylings; Rewind, an environmental lament flooded by strings and percussion, insists “we all know what’s coming” before ominous audio of children playing in water. Beyond The Sun, meanwhile, thunders onto the record like it’s crashing through undergrowth, bass clarinet and bowed saw increasing the sense of hectic ritual, feverish, Hounds Of Love pursuit. Yet Lives Outgrown more often feels dense rather than lush, a subtle, sepia-and-grey shading reminiscent of Warren Ellis-era Bad Seeds, or P.J. Harvey’s I Inside The Old Year Dying.

As Bill Callahan might say, this is her apocalypse, in all its forms – the death of a relationship (Reaching Out), the extinguishing of dreams (For Sale), the loss of a beloved “soul” (Burden Of Life). It’s impossible, though, to escape the ultimate existential dread that suffuses Lives Outgrown. Over time, the music industry has realised that not everyone hopes they die before they get old and has come to accept the Not Dark Yet school of songwriting, happy to frame Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen as biblical prophets facing down their doom. An artist addressing the specific challenges of female midlife is still rare, however – a few comic songs about hot flushes, Tori Amos’s 2014 LP Unrepentant Geraldines, or Tracey Thorn’s witty yet poignant Hormones (from 2010’s Love And Its Opposite) come to mind. Lives Outgrown is hardly a Davina McCall wellness DVD, but there’s a real sense of being repeatedly slammed up against mortality by biology, especially on the salt-scoured Oceans. Gibbons sings of ovulation and exhaustion in an unusually porous, chalky register, the song ending with her sinking to the (rock) bottom of the sea, “not afraid anymore”.

If that all sounds bleak, it is. Yet Lives Outgrown is also very beautiful, not least when Gibbons quietly sings “it’s not that I don’t want to return” during Floating On A Moment’s contemplation of death. It’s an echo of Mysteries, a reminder that you can only be this sorrowful about losing something when you love it so much. It would be too easy to say it ends on a note of redemption or hope – after what’s gone before, it’s clear there are no last-minute reprieves – but the closing Whispering Love does feel like quiet acceptance, a patch of sun after all the cold truths, the odd little chirrup that punctuates the song suggesting a small blip of happiness. As she sings on Floating On A Moment, “all we have is here and now.” Keep in the company of Lives Outgrown, and that’s no sad thing.

Lives Outgrown is out now on Domino.

Listen/buy: Spotify | Apple Music | Amazon | Rough Trade | HMV

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Picture: Eva Vermandel

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