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Beth Gibbons, 'Lives Outgrown'

Outgrwon album artwork


Lives Outgrown (Domino)


IN FILM NOIR AND BETH GIBBONS, who once seemed the quintessential soundtrack of the genre, it was always blood and bone, even when elliptical. Especially when elliptical.

One of the defining elements of Beth Gibbons in the treated sounds and electronics of Portishead, and to a certain extent with the folk-oriented Rustin Man, was the ability to root a sense of separation and brittleness in the organic and quite moving. Like a romance in the midst of the moral corruption of a classic noir, that top line was something that seemed antithetical to those roots but became indistinguishable from it.

Or put it this way: she had an ability to be chilly, to the point of glacial, and warm at the same time and those who criticised her then for emotional withdrawal missed that sometimes the cause was not being uncaring but rather caring too much and turning to a cloak or mask to protect from something worse.

“I used to feel the feelings,” she says in one of her new songs and whether we realised it or not, what really connected singer and listener in those Portishead songs was that rather than shut down, she was fair bristling with emotion just held in, and we couldn’t help but feel it even if we couldn’t name it.

A couple of decades on, Lives Outgrown removes any question of doubt about this.

The fruit of a long period of self-assessment and judgment, partly driven by age, partly driven by inclination, that was marked eventually by loss and a decision to re-engage rather than retreat, this is an album whose emotions are not masked at all.

In the rumbling undertow of Burden Of Life, festooned with distended violins that constantly reshape themselves and smatterings of what sounds like home-made percussion, Gibbons sings of how “the love of generations … gone for reasons that I know” still feel like clouds passing across the sun because “No answers are there/No answers of why”. She sounds wearied but persistent. Persevering. Immediately on its heels, Lost Changes opens with acoustic guitar, echoey space, and a bassline that only hints at movement, letting the pace be set elsewhere. Here, slightly lighter in tone than in Burden Of Life, Gibbons reinforces that idea of perseverance.

“Change your heart instead of stare/Feel alive, hold your own,” she says and the graceful strings paint a future in shades less grim, though not unburdened. She sings as if to convert someone with earned knowledge rather than wishfulness, confessing that “We took on a feeling, a moment, a gleaming/And said what’s the game”, but arguing that “Life changes/Love changes things/And all that I want you to want me/The way that you used to/And all that I want is to love you/The way that I used to.”

Despair has been considered, is not easily dismissed across Lives Outgrown, and fear openly feeds into a lot of the songs, but neither is embraced as it once might have been. Yes, “my heart is tired and worn,” Gibbons tells us in the English folk tumble and sway of Oceans, but she “tried to ignore than I might never win”. Yes, “every time’s taken, I’ll never say/Fooled ovulation, but no babe me”, and the rising strings don’t pretend beauty, but fear isn’t in triumph. “I’ll dive into the ocean/On the floor I’ll gather my pride/And I’ll feel the length of emotion/Underneath not afraid anymore.”

Lest we get too comfortable, Rewind and Reaching Out remind us overtly and in implication, that these changes, or this rebuilding, aren’t happening among petals and dewy drops but natural and social crumblings.

In Rewind, Gibbon’s voice comes to us in distortion, set among what might be bagpipes, North African drums and clanging guitars – mimicking in some ways a partially destroyed cityscape; an urban environment that right now feels like a slice of the evening news – emerging to warn that “the wild has no more to give … and we all know what’s coming”. Reaching Out, more snaking in its rhythm, more pungent in its sharp brass interjections, more Arabic than Mediterranean, sees her voice unadorned but the tension tightened around it. Its climax as a kind of ecstatic lost-in-the-dance loosens but never entirely loses that tension.

As you may have gathered by now, Lives Outgrown has a fairly wide musical exploration and a willingness to use the breadth of the studio environment, but it feels at its core very much a folk record: earthy and tangible. You can see that in the low horizons of Tell Me Who You Are Today, which has the brooding quality of Anne Briggs, and the tensile Floating On A Moment, which in its foreboding brushed with small delicacies of light comes the closest to Portishead. And it’s unmissable in the angularities of For Sale, the hand drums and caravan-against-the-fading-sun of Beyond The Sun and the flute reveries mixed with Velvet Underground twists of Whispering Love.

But most of all, it is an emotional record of need and recovery that reveals itself not in some late denouement or shock reveal but in its continuing grasp of the frailties and strengths of flawed people. Like the best film noir, but maybe with a happier – or at least not hopeless – ending: a film whose final words would be hers here. “Oh whispering love/Blow through my heart/When you can.”


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